Lloyd Evans

Ben Miller interview: ‘Everyone was doing alternative comedy. I thought I’d distinguish myself by just telling jokes’

Miller on starring in The Duck House, a farce about MPs' expenses, and sketch partnership with Alexander Armstrong

Ben Miller interview: 'Everyone was doing alternative comedy. I thought I'd distinguish myself by just telling jokes'
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Ben Miller is wolfing down a pizza. I meet the comedian in a Cambridge restaurant where he demolishes a Margherita shortly before racing off to appear on stage in The Duck House, a new farce about corrupt MPs. The show is set in 2009. Miller stars as a Labour backbencher who wants to jump ship and join the Conservatives. But first he has to convince a Tory bigwig that his expenses claims are entirely legitimate. He’s not helped by his dim-witted wife, his corrupt Russian cleaner, and his anarchist son, Seb, who has sublet the family flat in Kensington to a suicidal Goth.

The writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash wanted to stage the play just before the 2010 election. Miller believes this would have been premature. ‘People were incandescent with rage about the expenses claims but now it looks like the economy’s turning a corner and the scandal feels funny for the first time.’

The show has been touring since October. Do the audiences vary?

‘Noticeably, but it’s the opposite of what you might think. In Malvern, which is very Tory, they loved the Tory jokes, but with the champagne socialist jokes, it was, “Fine but we’re not really interested.” We’re hoping the champagne socialist jokes will really take off in London because that’s where the majority of champagne socialists are.’

The script is still receiving last-minute tweaks.

‘We, the actors, like the play as it is, thanks very much. We don’t want to change it. And the writers want to keep changing it as much as they possibly can.’ What Miller calls ‘the horse-trading’ continues under the supervision of the director, Terry Johnson.

‘He’s quite strict, quite martial. If he were a schoolteacher he’d be the kind who gets everyone in line immediately, then further down the track you discover he has a heart of gold and he runs all the school trips.’

Is he collaborative?

‘Very. And then he decides what he’s going to do.’

Sounds like a dictator.

‘A benign dictator.’

Miller is a seasoned writer himself. Has he been tempted to throw in the odd gag? ‘No. I find when I’m acting that makes me very unpopular. I just pop my other hat back in its box. It’s more fun that way. You’re absolved of any responsibility. Literally, I have people ironing my socks and laying them out for me. I’m being treated as if I were an imbecile. And I respond to that.’

Miller studied physics at Cambridge. His comedy partner, Alexander Armstrong, was a contemporary but they met only once and fleetingly. ‘I’d heard that he was very funny. He was in a show called A Water Melon Killed My Daughter. But we didn’t meet properly till after.’

Miller began to study for a PhD in solid state physics but he changed tack and came to London in 1990. He scraped a living as an actor, sketch writer and stand-up. ‘What was your persona on stage?’

‘Everyone was doing alternative comedy. I thought I’d distinguish myself by just telling jokes, with differing degrees of success. I wasn’t one of those people who stayed on if it wasn’t going well. I’d leave immediately. I’d either be on for the full slot or a few seconds. “Thanks very much. Bye. G’night.”’

‘Were your parents overjoyed that you’d chucked in your PhD to become a strolling player?’

‘Unsurprisingly not. When Xander and I got our show on TV, my dad came up to London and we went out to dinner and he said, “Sorry I tried to talk you out of it. I was giving you the best advice I could at the time.”’

Comics earn a lot of dosh playing huge arenas these days. Would he make a comeback?

‘Yeah. Trouble is I don’t know when I would do it. It’s suited to the young single man. You need a lot of time on your hands in the evening. I mentioned it to my wife the other day. She said, “Absolutely not.”’

He has two young children to look after and he admits that his outlook, and his political views, have changed over time.

‘The depth of my understanding has changed,’ he says. ‘Initially you might think you agree with something and as you learn more about it you change your mind. Fundamentally we’re all socialists, we operate a socialist system here. Whatever government is elected, we have a public health system and a public education system. Our differences of opinion are pretty narrow.’

Politics is one of his abiding interests. ‘I’m one of those people that read a newspaper. So many people don’t now. Extraordinary.’ He predicts a Tory majority in 2015. ‘Governments are hostage to the economic cycle and the present government is lucky in that it looks like we’re going to get the new economic cycle in time for the election.’

The Coalition has worked well enough, he says, but he’s no fan of hung parliaments.  ‘A clearly defined agenda and a mandate. That’s what the British people want. I like to know what the government stands for, what the ideology is. Maybe it’s force of habit but I’m a sucker for a theory. That’s why I went into physics. I’d rather sink with a bad theory than swim with muddy pragmatism.’

‘A lot of people have doubts about Ed Miliband. Do you?’

‘I wouldn’t say, even if I did. What I’m interested in is policies. My function as an actor is to keep as much of my personality, and my opinions, to myself. That way I can serve other people’s writing. If you knew what my politics were, I couldn’t do a play like this. It wouldn’t work. That’s a really important thing. It’s self-interest. You want to be able to play as many different characters as you can.’

Working on stage is what excites him right now. ‘The first ever job I had was in a play, Trench Kiss, with Caroline Quentin and Arthur Smith. We went to Edinburgh, did a tour, played Battersea Arts Centre. I thought, great, this is it. Time to get the smoking jacket. That’s why I quit my PhD, because I got that job.’

‘If you’d turned it down you could have won the Nobel Prize like all the other Cambridge physicists.’

‘Yeah,’ he shrugs. ‘Or they could have done sketch-comedy.’

The Duck House is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 10 December until 29 March 2014.