When I left the University of Birmingham, what I really wanted to do was to direct plays. About a year after college graduation I wanted something creative to do, so I ended up doing stand-up, because it’s the simplest thing you can do, in terms of organisation. I know most people will think it’s terrifying, but it really is the simplest thing to do from a logistic point of view. So that’s really why I did it, for a creative outlet.
How did you go into acting after your stand-up work?
I did a political comedy night and for the first and only time in my stand-up career I did it as a character, as character Dr Tristan Hardy from The Mail on Sunday doing a lecture on immigration. I think Armando Ianucci saw it and thought I was a character actor. Armando and I met a few months later on the News Quiz on Radio 4, and afterwards he was telling me about this idea for a show that he had, an up to date version of Yes Prime Minister. And we were talking of our love for Yes Prime Minister and our love of political comedies, and he said I should come in and talk about his new project. A few months after that I went in and did a weird improvising casting – instead of reading off a script, I had to improvise a scene with the producer of the show, and then I didn’t get called back and I thought that was the end of that. But, just before Christmas that year I got a call asking me what I was doing the first week of January as I had a part in this show. So that was the first time I acted really, in The Thick of It.
What advice would you give to aspiring young actors or comedians?
I guess the only advice that I would give to anybody going into anything creative is to generate your own work. You can’t sit around waiting for castings and auditions, the power lies in making stuff. If you want to be an actor it’s so much better to be someone who writes their own shows and put’s their own shows on because then you’ve always got something that you can do and show yourself off with. I would say whatever you do, don’t sit about.
When you first got involved with The Thick of It did you imagine it would be so successful?
I think when we all first started to do it, we realised that we were kind of onto something. We only recorded three episodes to begin with due to money, the director said that he couldn’t show what he wanted to show in half an hour as people wouldn’t get it, but he made the money stretch in extraordinary ways. At the end of the process we all thought that we’d done something extraordinary. It was a really odd thing to do because it involved a lot of improvisation, so everyone involved was terrified about whether it was going to work out, or how it was going to work. When we saw the first screening we thought, this is good, and then the reviews started to come in. So by the time we put the second episode together, praise had already been lavished on us, so we were in a very fortunate position that midway through we knew that we were onto something good.
How did it feel taking the series into a feature length film?
There were obviously some adjustments. The only characters that stayed absolutely the same were Malcolm Tucker and his side kick Jamie, everyone else got slightly different versions, for example Toby is still very close to Ollie, although he’s a lot nastier. But it didn’t really feel very different, because by the time we got to the film we’d already had two, two hour long specials for The Thick of It , where we’d expanded the world and the cast was growing. So we were used to the idea of bringing new people, and when Tom Hollander and Gina McKee came in it didn’t seem unusual to us. We started off filming it with many of the same crew, the same writers, same director and many of the same cast, so it just felt like making the telly series, with slightly less flimsy props. It was only at the very end that we went to the States to shoot out exteriors in Washington. So it started to feel like a film very gradually, it didn’t feel like we were thrown into a whole new mix: it felt like little by little we added on to the exteriors of doing the television show and made it into a film.
You’ve had a very varied career; can you pick up one particular highlight to date?
I’ve done so many different things; I’ve had my own radio shows, written my own TV shows, sitcoms, I’ve written books. There are so many things that I’ve been able to do, and at the beginning of each thing I’ve pinched myself. When you’ve done some work and then you walk into a room that’s been set up to deal with the work that you’ve produced, that’s really exciting.
What was your experience at the University of Birmingham like?
I studied English between 1991-1994, I was in Lake Hall on the Vale for my first year and then I lived in Selly Oak. I spent a lot of my time in the Guild actually, we were quite Guildy people my lot, we did lots of plays. I used to like doing a lot of society stuff; I was in Carnival in my first year. I went to nightclubs which no longer exist, and we used to go for a big night out on Fridays at the Guild. I was co-chair of the Guild theatre group. I loved my time at Birmingham, I think of it often, not always without regret. I just went to the 40th birthday party of my best friend who I met on my first day there, we’ve now known each other over half our lives and he’s my children’s Godfather. Most of my social world still includes people that I was at Birmingham with. I think that place was the making of me.
Can you tell me something about yourself that your fans may not know?
I desperately need a wee? I don’t think there’s anything about me that I haven’t already made clear through the media and Twitter.
Have you got any hidden talents?
I have no hidden talents; all of my talents have been used in the attempt to make a living. So that’s really why I ended up in comedy in the first place, as I had no other talents.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
Wow, I see myself on my privately bought Caribbean Island. I see myself as Director General of the BBC, and then all channels will be comedy all the time.
On the subject of comedy, what comedians or comic actors and actresses do you most enjoy watching?
There are loads. I think when you work in it you start laughing less and appreciating more, so I value when people can make me laugh and forget myself. Billy Connolly is the best; I’ve never seen him without him making me unable to breathe, at some point, from laughter; which is the highest compliment I can give. I will never get bored of watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was Elaine in Seinfeld, I think she’s amazing and hilarious. There are so many brilliant comic actors and actresses in this country and it seems almost unfair to single people out, but those are two people who reduce me to a fit of quivering joy.
What upcoming projects do you have this year?
Well firstly I plan to sort out Syria, and then Mock the Week starts in June, and then I’m going to have a nice sit down, maybe with a bag of crisps.
Do you still audition for roles, or do you wait for them to come to you?
I can’t remember the last time I did an audition, but then I also can’t remember the last time I was offered anything either! I think anybody will come in and read for a part, the thing about auditions, and what I’ve realised from holding auditions, is that casting directors have a thing in their head of what that part is, and they want to see who fits it best. So you should always go in and read for a part. Maybe there is a piece of advice that I can give to young actors, don’t ever be despondent if you don’t get a part because it’s not personal; they’ve got an idea of what they’re looking for and it’s almost nothing you can do about it, you either fit their profile or you don’t. I auditioned people a couple of months ago, and we had big names coming in. It’s very nice to be offered stuff but I’m always happy to go in and read.
This was originally published in Redbrick newspaper on page 18 here