2009 TV Preview: 'Moving Wallpaper' returns
As Tube Talk revealed back in the summer, this time around Jonathan Pope (Ben Miller) and his team will be working on Renaissance, a one-off zombie drama pilot starring Alan Dale and Kelly Brook.
Leading British screenwriter Tony Jordan - the brains behind the concept - tells us what to expect from the new format.
What changes have you made for the second series of Moving Wallpaper?
"The biggest change is that there is no longer Echo Beach. They've moved on to another production, which is something I always thought that they would do. I think it's fun to mix and match the shows they're making, which is where Renaissance came from."
What inspired Renaissance?
"I thought 'how far away from Echo Beach can we get?' Echo Beach was meant to be candy floss, teenagers in bikinis in the beach, quite light and fluffy. So we ran around the houses to come up with something that I thought hadn't been seen on British television for a while - and then in the middle of writing it, bloody Dead Set came out! Obviously Echo Beach was played straight, and Renaissance is the same. It's quite hard-hitting and quite gory in places."
What's the story of Renaissance?
"Essentially a plane is in the air on a long-haul flight, it lands, and everything seems quiet and strange. It transpires that while they've been in the air, the world has been taken over by zombies. We've got Kelly Brook playing a single girl who is trying to make some sense of her life, on the same flight as Alan Dale's character, who's a divorced dad with two kids. They just happen to be the group that escapes from the plane as zombies attack it. From then on it goes into a road movie, I guess. Without too much road, because of the budget!"
So Moving Wallpaper tracks the making of this one pilot?
"Yeah. Essentially what we've done is try to hold onto the spirit of Moving Wallpaper, which means that one has a direct effect on the other. The story in Renaissance is arced so that over the six episodes of Moving Wallpaper, we go through the normal stuff - the storylining and the writing of the scripts. What's good about this is that we have stunts, a jumbo jet and zombies, flame throwers and stuff like that. It's really cool seeing Jonathan Pope involved in all that!"
One of the good things about the first series was that we saw jokes being set up in Moving Wallpaper, then unfolding straight afterwards in Echo Beach. Do we lose that this time?
"It's not going to work in the same way, simply because they're not running back-to-back. It's a different kind of thing. But the format is the same, so you will see clips of Renaissance in Moving Wallpaper and see things behind-the-scenes of Renaissance so that when you come to watch it, they will give you kind of double-double. You get the drama but also you know how that particular scene came about. You would know things you wouldn't know when you watch any other drama, which is the basic premise behind Moving Wallpaper in the first place."
How does Jonathan react to the demise of Echo Beach?
"Jonathan's great, 'cos he's completely self-serving. He doesn't give a shit about Echo Beach. He's angry at everybody else for it being cancelled, so he blames the writers and he blames the cast. It's not his fault because he's a genius. That lasts all of 20 seconds, then he's trying to find out what his next show's going to be and giving Nancy a hard time about him moving on to something else."
So do we draw a line under Echo Beach then? Did you think about getting the actors in for cameos?
"We talked about it. It's really difficult, because there's lots of different arguments. One is that you don't even mention Echo Beach, you just start a different show. We also discussed doing lots of Echo Beach. In the end I think we got the balance right. In the opening sequences of the programme, we're quite honest and deal with the demise of Echo Beach in a good way. We draw a line under it and move on quite quickly, which I think is the best thing to do. We decided against cameos, so we decided against an entire episode of Jonathan sacking Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon. I kind of did that in the last episode and didn't want to do the same gag again."
As for the final scene of Echo Beach, will we ever get a resolution to that?
"We always thought the Moving Wallpaper gang would move on to other shows eventually, but I always envisaged Echo Beach being at least two runs. So I've actually storylined the entire second series of Echo Beach. I'm the only person in the world who knows exactly what happened! I'm thinking maybe I should write it up in a blog or something."
What's the future of Moving Wallpaper if it gets a third series? Would it be more Renaissance or another show?
"I don't ever want Moving Wallpaper to stand on its own and just become a sitcom. That doesn't make any sense to me. We've got Extras and 30 Rock - it's been done before. The thing that makes it unique and ground-breaking is that it's behind-the-scenes of an actual show that you can watch elsewhere. To me that will always be the future of Moving Wallpaper and I will always strive to have that second strand. I don't think we'll do Renaissance again. I think we've now moved on, but I haven't even started thinking about what they would be making in series three. Maybe a sitcom making a sitcom - how cool would that be?"
Armstrong and Miller: interview
It will be the Second World War RAF pilots that swing it. As a new series of Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller's sketch show hits our screens, those people who love to record things on telly and stick them up on YouTube (whoever they are) are bound to rush to share the latest antics of these laughably modern-of-speech airmen. The pair's hilarious spitfire rounds of street-slangy chat – delivered in a deadpan, clipped, upper-crust style – are poised to achieve a decisive victory in their creators' long, drawn-out campaign to become all the rage.
Maybe I'm being too eager on behalf of a double-act that took no time at all to get launched over a decade ago on Channel 4 yet has only recently, on the BBC, started to attract mainstream attention and affection. I suspect, though, that Armstrong and Miller have reached a tipping point. Quotably amusing characters of the sort the whole nation can latch onto only come along once in a while. Little Britain had catchphrases a gogo but it was Vicky Pollard who got everyone talking. The same goes for Catherine Tate's "Am I Bovvered?", The Fast Show's "Suit you!" outfitters, Newman and Baddiel's History Professors and Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney.
Like a number of the above, the RAF pilots skit expertly lands a certain negative perception of our national character that has been circling in the air for a while. A typical scenario from series two has the pair (always filmed in black-and-white) facing a firing squad following a court-martial. "So iz you saying you iz going to shoot us all up with guns, and this and that and everything else?" protests Armstrong's character. "But we'z on your side, man," chips in Miller. "I want a community sentence – being shot might affect me emotionally," his pal splutters.
Armstrong and Miller don't really do satire but there's a welcome edge of indignation to this anachronistic portrait of institutionalised spinelessness. As Armstrong – Xander, as he likes to be called – says: "There's quite a bit of anger in there, yes. We had this simple idea of making the sort of chaps who won the war sound like today's teens – and it seemed to open up a lot. To think that in the space of about one generation we've gone from that high level of self-sacrifice to a low-participation culture, where there's always a sick-note for everything, and a constant sense of entitlement – that's fairly shocking, if also quite funny."
The other material knocking around the new series isn't of that kidney – or calibre – but it's all reliably entertaining, whether it's Armstrong's self-indulgently frank divorced father or Miller's chronically clumsy academic television presenter. The character divisions follow their own personality traits – Armstrong, who sounds like a country squire, delivers a succession of brash, posh and insensitive types; Miller, more of an agitated council official in demeanour, gets the pent-up, borderline psychopathic parts.
The performances rub well against each other, without sparking major controversy. And that may be what we need at the moment. Nothing too strenuously experimental, or dark, or uncomfortable – just good old-fashioned silly stuff. The news just in – well, fanfared in the first series, now confirmed in the second – is that Armstrong and Miller have raised their game. Those who wrote them off as bumptious and annoying upstarts during their Channel 4 years – and then suffered their subsequent solo appearances in multiple comedy dramas and sitcoms with the unanswered question in their heads – "Yes, but what are they actually for?" – now have a proper glimpse of an answer.
"You come to a point in your life when the idea of being funny 'one day' isn't enough," Miller says, with a genial smirk. "The time for 'potential' is over. Now we're reaching our middle years," – he's 43, Armstrong is on the cusp of 40 – "we felt we really had better make people actually laugh or we should give up." He lets out a guffaw at this. Both he and Armstrong are hearty guffawers. You swiftly glean in conversation how they could have hit it off trying comedy at Cambridge University and beyond, despite coming from opposite subject areas (Miller did a PhD in physics; Armstrong an English degree) and different backgrounds (Miller grew up outside Crewe, and his parents were state-sector teachers; hailing from Northumberland, Armstrong's father is a rural doctor and his mother a GP).
They don't disown their Nineties endeavours but can see why critics might have carped: "Someone said in 1994 that we had invented a new kind of comedy," Armstrong recalls. "'One that isn't funny and has no jokes whatsoever' – they weren't wrong!"
They were terrified, Armstrong reveals, of having to make their names alone. "Neither of us were sure we'd have any career after the Channel 4 series came to an end. We were desperately clinging onto each other, which wasn't healthy at all. In fact, establishing ourselves as being able to get by on our own has been the biggest galvanising factor in bringing back Armstrong and Miller. We are far less neurotic."
Do they detect that a Little Britain moment might be in the offing for them? They can both now count on lucrative solo careers – and have also set up their own independent production company, Toff Media, to develop new projects. Armstrong has a slew of panel-games to front, not least as regular guest-host of Have I Got News For You. And Miller is currently touting a new film he has directed, Huge, about two struggling stand-up comedians. But to make a big splash second time around, which is almost unheard of in double-act sketch comedy – that's the dream. "Imagine if it does take off this time," Armstrong murmurs, suddenly serious for a second. "That would be amazing."
"I don't think something as big as Little Britain could happen again," Miller says. "But would we like a little piece of that? And how!"
How We Met: Ben Miller & Alexander Armstrong
Ben Miller, 43, is a comedian, actor and director best known as one half of comedy duo Armstrong and Miller. He has appeared in TV series including 'Doc Martin' and 'Primeval' and in films including 'The Parole Officer'. He lives in north London with his wife and child
The first time I met Xander was outside a World Party gig in Cambridge in 1990. I remember thinking, "Who the hell are World Party?" I was doing a PhD and Xander was doing his undergrad degree. We didn't know each other, but for some reason we both said hello. I knew about him already, by reputation, mind. Apparently there was this guy doing a very funny play called A Watermelon Killed My Daughter who couldn't stop laughing all the way through it.
When Xander graduated, he came to London and was in a play with my flatmate, Jez Butterworth. He was the funniest person I'd ever seen. It was like a thunderbolt; I thought, "I should be doing a double act with that guy."
We're such different personalities – he's an optimist, I'm a pessimist, he's outgoing, I'm introverted – but we shared a sense of humour. I'd been doing one-man stand-up, but as soon as we started working together I realised it was much more fun.
Xander is phenomenally generous – with his money, time, humour, everything. He is a bit like Tigger in his boundless energy and enthusiasm. In our bachelor days we lived around the corner from one another. We went out a lot, usually ending up in one of those weird speakeasy places underneath a cab company.
By 2001 we had spent every waking moment together for eight years and both needed to recharge our batteries. It was a turning point in our friendship, because both of us had started to worry about whether we could survive on our own.
Now we are working together again we know we are there because we love it. When we hang out now it is usually with our kids. We spend Sunday afternoons in parks, munching on kids' party food.
My favourite memory of him is when we were nominated for the Perrier Award at Edinburgh in 1996 and celebrated at the Witchery restaurant. We drank this incredible wine, after which Xander began hallucinating that Francis Bacon, Winston Churchill, Gandhi and god-knows-who were sat at our table and started conversing with them all. That's how I like to think of Xander – in the company of greats.
Alexander Armstrong, 39, is a comedian, actor and TV presenter best known as the other half of Armstrong and Miller. He presents ITV comedy quiz show 'Don't Call Me Stupid' and is a regular on 'Have I Got News For You'. He lives in west London with his wife and children
Ben Miller was world-famous at Cambridge – he was in a band [the Dear Johns] who had made a single, he went out with [the actress] Rachel Weisz. Everybody hated him. I saw him first in 1989 at a Cambridge University Footlights "smoker", a show where anyone who thinks they're funny auditions a sketch, then anyone who is good enough – and I mean that in the loosest sense – gets a slot. I watched Ben do something with his guitar and a glove puppet. He had an earring and peroxide blond hair at the time.
I saw him again at Edinburgh in 1992. He had this ability for well-observed realism, my favourite kind of comedy, so I was really hoping we might get a chance to work together. I had been in a double act before, so I had baggage. Ben and I were performing at the Gate theatre in Notting Hill once and we ran into my ex-partner – it was just like When Harry Met Sally.
We used to write in Ben's kitchen. We liked the sound of our own comedic voices a bit too much in those days so we'd write reams, occasionally stopping to go out for tea and Boasters chocolate biscuits.
At night we spent a lot of time in this fantastic Spanish tapas bar in Soho with live flamenco music. We mainly went there because we were utterly impoverished and you could pay for a round by cheque.
One of the highlights of that period was when we made a speech to lots of industry people in Cannes to try to raise money for [private members' club and hotel] Babington House. We hadn't really grasped after-dinner speaking and thought we'd just go out there and jot a few things down in the afternoon. We did that, got quite drunk and bunged this terrible stuff down. We made such arses of ourselves.
We had a bit of a falling out in 2002. It wasn't Ben or me, it was the strictures of doing everything together. You just yearn for a bit of freedom. We were lucky that we were able to build separate careers. We always stayed friends, though, and would still go on holiday together.
By 2005, we were both married and we realised our wives had never seen us perform together. We did something live for a charity gig and I realised how much I had missed it. Ben and I now have a much better relationship because we're more assured in our separate selves.
Ben is the dynamo when we write; he holds the pen, so to speak. It makes him absolutely dementing at times because he takes a minute interest in things. If you're as impatient and dilettante as I am, you want to waltz on to the next thing. But his ability to be master of so many trades is so unusual, you can't help but be dazzled.
Interview: Ben Miller and Johnny Harris on Huge
Award-winning comedian Ben Miller was a big presence at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Not only was he on the juror panel for the Projector.tv Best International Feature award, he was also presenting the world premiere of his directorial debut, Huge. ReelScotland writers Richard Bodsworth and Ross Maclean met up with Miller and one part of Huge’s on screen comic duo, in the form of Johnny Harris, at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh on the day of the film’s premiere.
It was obvious on first meeting that Miller was an old hand at this sort of thing – relaxed, prepared, and ready to go. He even offered up some potential photo opportunities to our photographer. Johnny Harris, best known for his grittier roles, is a shadow of his on screen persona as he greeted us warmly.
The story of Huge itself follows the highs and lows of a struggling comedy duo played by Noel Clarke and Johnny Harris. With the obvious connections to Miller’s own career made famous by his BAFTA-winning partnership with Alexander Armstrong in Armstrong and Miller and the casting against type of Clarke and Harris, ReelScotland were set on getting to the bottom of it all.
ReelScotland: So Huge was originally a play?
Ben Miller: Yeah that’s right, back in 1993.
RS: Was there a reason you decided to make it now or had you been trying to make it for a while?
Ben: When I originally wrote the play I was trying to break in to comedy and I felt really frustrated that I couldn’t get a start, which is the hardest part, I think, in any field of the arts really. Anyway, I was getting so frustrated and the guys I was doing it with, Jez Butterworth and Simon Godfrey, were kind of in the same boat – we were all trying to break in but didn’t know how to do it.
So the play was kind of borne of that frustration. It was basically two guys sitting in a flat bitching about other comedians that were successful when they weren’t. It had some beautiful dialogue in it and a really lovely basic story of the two of them coming together, then splitting, then one of them coming back as some kind of spurned lover after one had become successful – he then tries to convince him to get back in on the act.
I was feeling a similar frustration at not being able to get into the film business. I had wanted to direct a film and it had been on and off, on and off for ages and I just wanted to do something that I can do for myself and Huge came to mind for all various reasons really, but the most important one for me is that it really bottled that frustration really, really well. It expresses quiet desperation better than any other story I’ve come across.
RS: How much did the script change from the play to the film?
Ben: It did change a lot. Johnny and I worked a lot on the script for the film, we had lots of readings and lots of rehearsals. [Turns to Johnny] And to begin with I fair to say what attracted you to doing it was the original play¦
Johnny Harris: Yeah, brilliant script. Stunning. Very complex, I remember. Talking about not just the world of comedy but the building of a joke and the science of comedy if you like and I thought that was amazing and I’d never read anything like it.
Ben: But the more we did it, we were filming and taping these readings and as much as we loved the play, we began to find that it wasn’t really translating and we were going to have break its bones and reset them in order for it to be a film. We all worked really, really hard on that actually but they do express the same theme. I get the same feeling when I watch the film as I used to have with the play. There’s some great films from plays, you know, like Doubt, Death of a Salesman, and um, [pauses] and probably another one. But um, oh, Glengarry Glen Ross, I just thought of that one. But we didn’t really want to do that, we felt we wanted to make a film and Johnny was kind enough to give hours and hours to talking about the characters and rehearsing and we kind of worked it didn’t we?
Johnny: Yeah. It was basically a duologue the play wasn’t it? Just one series of duologues which was great when I first read it, I was like “wow, tons and tons of screen-time,” but it’s not really that interesting to watch on camera – just a camera on some guy’s face going through a range of emotions. You need to have places to go and that’s where it evolved and slowly became more cinematic.
Ben: It was heartbreaking to take some of the dialogue out actually. We both felt it was very hard to let go of some of the great dialogue Jez wrote in the original play and neither of us wanted to let it go. It was kind of an eleventh hour thing actually. We were about six weeks from shooting before we started a major rewrite where we just cut out huge bits of dialogue and put in simple visual scenes instead. One of the things I’m most proud of is that it is a movie. It doesn’t feel like a film of a play and I hope you can vouch for that?
RS: Yeah, totally. I was wondering if that was the reason you cast both Johnny and Noel even though they aren’t stand up comedians. Was it more for the dramatic element of the characters, which you might not have got with comedians?
Ben: It was for a number of reasons actually. One of the inspirations for this film was a film called London to Brighton in which Johnny plays, I think it’s fair to say, a child prostitute pimp? Is that right?
Johnny: To quote my nan, “A gun-toting, pig pimp”.
Ben: Really? “A gun-toting pig pimp”?
Johnny: Yeah, “Are you the gun-toting pig pimp?”. I think she’d read it in a paper or something.
Ben: And then I watched that film and I honestly thought that’s amazing, I just loved Johnny’s performance. Then I watched the Q&A stuff that was on the DVD and they were talking about how they got the film together for next to no money. I got really inspired by that and I got in touch with the director, Paul Andrew Williams, and sought his advice about how to put a film together. He gave me this brilliant bit of advice which is, ”Just set a date and everything will happen.” So that’s what we did. But I also thought Johnny’s performance in London to Brighton was also very funny with some great comic timing and a comic sensibility. I just thought he’d be really funny.
The same with Noel in Adulthood and Kidulthood, ostensibly, on the surface, they appear to be gangster films but really there’s a lot more going on in there and a real sense of comedy. Actually, I also heard Noel in a lift. I got stuck in a lift with Noel and he was talking with his friends and really making them laugh and I thought that was really interesting. I didn’t know he was a ‘holding-court, telling loads of gags’ kind of guy, [to Johnny] which he is isn’t he? A real storyteller.
Johnny: Yeah. Remember the cheesecake incident?
Ben: Oh yeah, yeah.
Johnny: The first time we ever met Ben together, and you’ve got these two kind of London gangster-type actors and within minutes we were discussing the merits of cheesecake!
Ben: Johnny goes, “I know where we can get the most amazing cheesecake, there’s this great little place in South London” and then Noel goes, “My missus makes the most fantastic cheesecake, I’ll bring you in some.”
Ben: And I’m sitting there thinking, I can’t believe this! I’m talking with two hardmen of British cinema and we’re discussing cheesecake. Anyway, we went out and bought some, didn’t we? We got this amazing Polish cheesecake and that was kind of our first meeting altogether. So yeah, there’s that reason. There’s also because the two characters in the film are comedians and I didn’t want the audience to be able to guess the outcome of the film. I wanted the audience thinking, Are they going to make it? Are they not going to make it?.
If the actors that had played them had ever done comedy before you would have made a judgement about whether you thought they were funny, whether you thought they deserved to make it, whether you didn’t. So I felt it was really important that we had fantastic dramatic actors that weren’t really known for comedy. Also, I just wanted there to be a lot of other stuff going on in the film that was only going to happen if you got people who really got into character and weren’t just playing the jokes, do you know what I mean?
RS: Well that’s what I got from it and what surprised me about it. I thought the performances were much deeper and there was a great chemistry between Johnny and Noel.
Ben: Yeah, I know.
RS: So I take you guys hit it off pretty well then?
Johnny: Yeah, ever since that first meeting. It’s funny, we had a lovely chat, Noel and I, once we’d got to know each other we shared a dressing room at Elstree. I remember Big Brother was on so we’d be watching that and talking and Noel ‘fessed up to me and said I wasn’t what he was expecting when I met him. He was expecting me to come in and be all ‘London’, and I was expecting him to be all ‘down with the kids’, you know? But we hit hit off immediately and Noel’s a real sort of family man.
Ben: You know, it makes me laugh. Even me, I’d seen Johnny in movies and I’d seen Noel in movies and you have this impression, you know, I don’t know what I was expecting but you’re sort of expecting the characters you’ve seen in a film somehow and these two thoughtful, serious actors turn up and have these real thoughtful, serious actor conversations and you’re kind of, “So, are you going to say ‘blud’?”.
Ben: Yeah, or Guv’nor. Are you going to say that?
Johnny: “Morning, Guv’nor.” “Sweet blud, yeah.”
RS: I don’t know if it was pre- or post-Twitter boom, you made the film, but Twitter seems to breaking down a lot of these barriers. Obviously Noel and Ben tweet…
Ben: Yeah, Twitter was a big part of this film. All our extras came from Twitter, and I was tweeting all the time we made the film, and Noel tweets as well. [Sighs] I wish there was another word so I don’t have to say that – tweet. It’s not like¦
Johnny: It’s not very street is it?
Ben: It’s never going to work is it? But yeah, even this afternoon I was putting things on my Twitter like the next ten people to reply will get free tickets to the premiere and stuff, but you’re right that sort of breaking down. The whole system is changing isn’t it?
RS: We’ve had David Baddiel and Ricky Gervais directing films this year, is now the time for comedians to move behind the camera? Is there something in the air?
Ben: Isn’t it weird that you hear there’s going to be a film coming about, I don’t know, basketball players in wheelchairs or something, and someone else will say, “Oh my God, Columbia is doing one of those as well!” It just seems to be film is plagued by having the same thing coming out at the same time. You can guarantee if one comedian is making a film, they all are.
I suppose these things are somehow in the ether but if you want to get a bit more analytical about it, I think comedy has finally come of age. The guys who were doing stand up in their twenties, honing gags and doing stuff, are now, like me, in their forties and starting to think a little about what they do, examine it and deconstruct it slightly. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Johnny: I think actors are doing it as well, I think it’s happening. In the age of the micro-budget film it’s possible to make films. You don’t have to be with a studio. I think actors are getting fed up with what they are seeing or the type of roles they’re being offered and just going out and making movies. Noel Clarke is a great example.
Ben: Noel Clarke is probably the example.
Johnny: The example, exactly.
RS: Just lastly, is there anything in the film that is going to make Alexander Armstrong go, “Hold on a minute”?
Ben: I’m a little worried because there might be something that might make one of our writers upset. As well as the double act, there’s also this weird love triangle with Noel’s character and another comedian called Darren. They are in a trailer talking about their stuff and they start discussing a sketch that’s been sent to them and it’s actually a sketch by one of the writers on our show!
I just totally forgot that I put it in the film! I’d always meant to phone and tell them, and change it, and it’s being discussed in the thing and I’m thinking, They’re going to see it. Is that stealing their idea in some way? They are two of our most important writers and I’m thinking, Are they going to be annoyed? Are they going to quit? I’d better get a phone call in there quick.
Johnny: Are they coming [to the premiere] tonight?
Ben: I hope not! You just think, I’ll put that in because it’s a true story and fictionalise it later.
Johnny: I just used mannerisms that are directly from my uncle and this uncle is an uncle I love dearly- raised me, this guy. The guy I’m playing in the film is a beast of a man, an absolute monster. He makes Derek from London to Brighton look like a boyscout. It wasn’t until about halfway through I realised anyone who knows my uncle will know this is him I’m doing. The mannerisms, this is not what he has done with his life. The breathing patterns and everything are all the same, I’m thinking, I’ve got to have that chat with him, you know? He took it alright.
Johnny: Yeah, he took it alright. You’re going to be fine Ben. I told him it’s not a very nice man and he said, “Well none of us are all the time, boy, are we?”
Ben: “Guv’nor”, he said.
Thanks to Ben and Johnny for their time.
The Ladykillers – reborn for the stage
Now more than 50 years old, Ealing comedy The Ladykillers is one of Britain's best-loved films. So how will Graham Linehan, writer of The IT Crowd and Father Ted, rework it for the theatre?
In the vaulting back room of a church off Islington's Upper Street in north London, five bad bogus men are plotting to bump off a little old lady. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Not only is The Ladykillers one of Britain's best-loved films, but the cast of the 1955 production – Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Danny Green – did include one or two actors that modern film programmes like to wrongly refer to as "legends", even if (pedantry aside) you know what they mean
But it is not, repeat not, a simple rehashing of the film, love the original though they all do. That was the mistaken assumption made by the Today programme, which asked Linehan if he had "changed it much". Linehan, bridling at the suggestion he'd simply transcribed it, and realising he was being set up for one of those confected cultural "arguments" not unknown to our beloved Today, refused to play along. (He is charming, but rather an imposing, and deeply principled, man.) He began to answer in dry and deliberately unhelpful monosyllables, denied the chance to talk about his own creation for the sake of a shanghaied un-debate on originality. Radio gold it was. So… not a knock-off, not a copy; rather, a homage with a quite new script, done live, with more depth given to the crims who are not the Alec Guinness/Peter Capaldi character. Actually, it sounds different enough already to stifle the purists, though doubtless there will be rumbles. Until they see it. And…
"Hi, I'm Ben," says a softly spoken, softly bearded man, offering his hand. It takes me a few seconds to realise that Ben Miller (best known for BBC1's The Armstrong & Miller Show) is just terribly self-effacing and hidden by a beard (I check later; he's losing it for the show proper). Miller plays Louis, the Romanian hit man (Herbert Lom in the film), and got into this (the production, rather than being a hit man) because Sean Foley directs the Armstrong/Miller tour, and asked him.
"We couldn't be unaware of the film, I love it, but really we were starting from fresh with Graham's new script. It's very different now; there's a lot of very, very physical stuff. And it's been a joy to do, if new territory for me, and hard work. Sean is quite a… stickler." (A little later, I watch director Foley ask a genially menacing professor Capaldi to lift, and lift, and lift, the needle from a record in, I think it was, 12 different ways, to get it just so; I think "stickler" is fair.) Miller, like all the others, can easily separate this work from the original, keeping a clear linked duality: they seem in love with Linehan's script, but can't help making reference to the film, which they also loved. "What I've always found particularly attractive about the film is that it feels so solid, so perfectly crafted, yet it follows no formula whatsoever; it's so different from any Hollywood template we're used to now. This is comedy without template, which you don't see these days. Maybe the Coen brothers. That's it. And now Graham, and this. "
Ben Miller on starring in new play The Duck House
Satire, according to George S Kaufman, is what closes on Saturday night. But The Duck House, a new West End satire on the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal by TV comedy gurus Dan Patterson and Colin Swash, has taken four years to open.
“I think they started working on it straight away,’ says comedian, actor and writer Ben Miller, who stars as house-flipping, wife-employing, glittery-toilet-seat-expensing Labour MP Robert Houston, who is about to defect to the Tories when the scandal breaks. “I started talking to them two years ago but even then it didn’t seem like the right time. Because people were still so angry – they weren’t ready to laugh.
“It was one of those rare outpourings of emotion from the British public, like the grief at Diana’s funeral. A perfect storm of anger, straight on the back of that horrific economic meltdown.”
Most people, we agree, probably assumed that our representatives were on the fiddle in some way: it was the absurd specifics revealed by Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke’s dogged forensic investigation that brought public fury to a sharp point but which look comical in hindsight.
“The sacks of manure and the hanging baskets, the massage chairs and the self-portraits,” agrees Miller, 47. “It’s the small stuff that is funnier.” Needless to say, his character, Houston, is in possession of all of the above items plus the titular floating avian abode, just like the one Sir Peter Viggers had claimed on expenses. Unlike Douglas Hogg, however, Houston doesn’t have a moat that needs cleaning, although his wife Felicity (played by Evening Standard Award-winner Nancy Carroll) points out that the ducks, living in a house in the middle of a pond, in effect do. Swash is the man behind Have I Got News for You, while Patterson created Whose Line is It Anyway? and they have collaborated on Mock the Week, so they know their satire. I have been given their script on the strict instruction not to reveal any of its surprises, but it is, as Miller says, “packed with jokes, like Ken Dodd on speed”.
The barrage of gags is accompanied by very demanding slapstick. “It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time,” says Miller.
It is only Miller’s second major West End play, after appearing in The Ladykillers two years ago. That was an enjoyable but stressful experience (“it was an eye-opener to me how injured we all got”), further complicated by the fact that during the run Miller’s father died, and his second son, Harrison, by his then partner and now wife Jessica Parker, was born. (He has a seven-year-old son, Jackson, known as Sonny, with his first wife Belinda Stewart-Wilson.)
“Quite often I was doing the show on two hours’ sleep a night,” he says glumly. “I really didn’t want to do another play. In the end, it was just that this script and the part were so good I thought I’d be mad not to do it. I don’t think of myself as a proper actor at all but I thought if I could get a very experienced team around me I would be okay: Nancy Carroll as my wife, Terry Johnson directing, Nica Burns producing.”
He’s being modest, of course, although he fell into both acting and comedy by a series of left turns. He grew up in Cheshire, with two younger sisters and parents who were teachers, and went to Cambridge to study natural sciences. A PhD in solid-state physics followed, and it was only then that the acting bug bit.
“I did something like 30 plays in three years, mainly classical, and worked with people like [director] David Farr, with Rachel Weisz [whom Miller also dated] and Steve Mangan, this huge group of creative people,” he says. One of his first roles was as Cassio in Othello. “I’d go on stage and try to play the part as I believed the Bard intended but I got a lot of laughs. So I thought, maybe I should go into comedy.”
He co-wrote a Shakespeare spoof called Norman, Thane of Spain, and played the lead, “and that’s how I got into Footlights”. He ended up directing a revue and eventually dropped out of Cambridge and started working on the comedy circuit, where he met Alexander Armstrong in 1992. Their friendship and comedy partnership turned 21 this year, and Armstrong was Miller’s best man at his wedding to Jessica earlier this year.
“We are both very different people,” says Miller. “Xander’s very easygoing, very hail-fellow-well-met, and I tend to be a bit more knitted-brow. In work rather than in life, I mean. I like to think of myself as focused in work, but it probably comes across as obsessive.”
They have always worked separately as well as together: Armstrong most recently hosting the game show Pointless and Miller acting in the TV comedy-drama Trouble in Paradise. Miller has also rediscovered his roots in physics. His first popular guide for lay people, It’s Not Rocket Science, was published in 2012, and a second is under way.
“This one is about the real science of aliens, not UFOs and all that stuff,” he says. “What we think aliens might be like, what alien planets might be like.”
Is there some sort of weird affinity between scientists and comedians, I ask. “There is,” he says. “A lot of comedians are scientists, and the link is that both are sceptical, they need proof and are anti-bullshit. It’s a leveller, comedy, and so is science. I don’t think you get a lot of comedians who are homeopaths. Comedy is essentially about not being hoodwinked.”
BEN MILLER talks about the world premiere of The Duck House
BEN MILLER leads an all-star cast in the world premiere of The Duck House, which opens at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre on Thursday, October 24 and runs until Saturday, November 2, prior to a West End transfer.
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.”
'Everyone thinks I'm Rob Brydon. Even Stephen Fry thought I was him at the BAFTAs!'
The biggest regret you wish you could amend... That I've never had a fistfight! I had scrapes at school, but I've never punched anyone or been punched. I've missed out on a part of social discourse.
The film you can watch time and time again... Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are the all-time great movie double act.
The temptation you wish you could resist... Cake, especially carrot cake from Gail's bakeries around London.
The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child... Find what you love to do as a job and you'll never have to work in your life.
The priority activity if you were the Invisible Man for a day... I'd hang out with The Rolling Stones as they record an album. To see how they create their songs would be an amazing experience.
The pet hate that makes your hackles rise... Bad manners. We're all happier when we're considerate to other people.
The person who has influenced you most... My father, Michael. He was principled, intelligent and funny. If I can be a quarter of the man he was, I'll be happy. He died of cancer in 2011 at 73.
The figure from history for whom you'd most like to buy a pie and a pint... Albert Einstein. I studied physics and did a PhD for three years. I'd love to hear Einstein's take on the advancements since his work.
The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity... The search for life on other planets. I think we'll find something within 20 years.
The unending quest that drives you on... To create comedy that will stand the test of time.
The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again... My first guitar, which was given to me when I was 14. It went missing about ten years ago.
The poem that touches your soul... Mending Wall by Robert Frost. It's about two neighbours building a wall and reveals a truth about human nature.
The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase... That I'm Rob Brydon! It's extraordinary and I wish I could convince people I'm not him. It happens sometimes five or six times a day. Even Stephen Fry thought I was him at the BAFTAs last year.
The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it... I'd impersonate a detective during a gangland murder investigation. It would be incredible to see how murder teams work.
The event that altered the course of your life and character... Meeting my comedy partner Alexander Armstrong in 1990. He was living on a barge in Chiswick and we clicked one booze-sodden evening. He's like a brother — without him, I wouldn't have a career or a life!
The song that means most to you... Love Minus Zero by Bob Dylan on his record Bringing It All Back Home. It's so romantic. A friend read the words at my wedding to Jessica last September.
The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions... I'd watch the sunrise at Topanga Canyon in Malibu, then have breakfast at Made By Bob, a deli in Cirencester, Gloucester.
I'd have pancakes, poached eggs, bacon, maple syrup and a double espresso. I'd walk that off in Gairloch in the Highlands of Scotland with my wheaten terrier, Ruby. Lunch would be with Jessica on the island of Ischia, Italy.
After that, we'd drive from Cape Town to the Franschhoek vineyards to taste white wine. Then we'd head to Sydney where we'd be joined by our kids Harrison, who's two-and-a-half, and Sonny, eight [from his first marriage].
We'd take a boat around Sydney, where I'd have cuttlefish for dinner. We'd end the day at the Shutters On The Beach hotel in Santa Monica. My nightcap would be a tonic water with lime juice and cane syrup.
The happiest moment you will cherish forever... Winning the 1,500m in 5 min 16 sec, aged 15, at school in Nantwich, Cheshire. My record still stands!
The saddest time that shook your world... Seeing the countryside where I grew up get over-developed. It used to be wild with hedgerows and rivers.
The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you... To be in a band. I was in one called The Dear Johns at college and that's still what I'd love to do.
The philosophy that underpins your life... If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! It comes from Buddhist teaching and is, of course, not be taken literally. It means always be mistrustful of anyone who positions themselves as a guru and says they have the answers.
The order of service at your funeral... I want the hymns How Great Thou Art and Jerusalem and a Monty Python sketch. I'm undecided about burial or cremation — I don't fancy either.
The way you want to be remembered... With love and as someone who brought a bit of laughter.