Hollywood tends to treat Richard Nixon as an oafish B-movie villain, so it is ambitious and original of Harry Shearer to try to convince a British audience of the very feminine side of the 37th American president.
As a veteran comedy actor and the ‘voice’ of several of the Simpsons cartoon characters — including Mr Burns, Smithers, and Ned Flanders — Shearer has the vocal range to get almost anyone right if he puts his mind to it. But voice work was not the main challenge in the forthcoming Sky Arts drama. Shearer is more intrigued by the physical aspects of the central role in Nixon’s the One, which he insists is not an impersonation, but a characterisation.
‘Nixon was always an expositor of the manly virtues, of “strength and resolve”, yet his physical gestures have a lot of daintiness to them,’ he explains. ‘When he tries to go macho, it’s always about ten yards short of the goal line.’
Shearer maintains that in addition to his rather prissy hand gestures, Nixon would flutter his eyelids a lot. And if you check old footage of Nixon on the web, he’s absolutely right. Even that final, slightly demented sweeping hand gesture as Nixon, utterly disgraced, is helicoptered off the White House lawn into California exile is less of a commander in chief’s farewell salute than a theatrical appeal for understanding.
So Shearer is not another leftie actor taking his turn to give Nixon a kicking. Indeed, he suggests the American left might have got Nixon wrong in key respects, for on domestic policy he was actually quite a liberal. Though it tends to be overlooked today, Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency and laid the foundations for the modern health and safety workplace regime.
‘Nixon proposed things that Obama wouldn’t be caught dead proposing because those policies are too far to the left. I think that would stun people if they thought about it.’
Shearer is not interested in salvaging Nixon’s reputation when we talk in a London hotel suite in advance of the broadcast, but he is clearly captivated by his subject’s weird personality.
Nixon burned with the resentment of an ambitious man born in modest circumstances in rural southern California, one who lacked social confidence, was utterly incapable of the politician’s essential tool of making small talk and always looked awful on television.
Nixon despised the East Coast political establishment, yet yearned to be part of it, and invited its most obvious representative, Harvard’s Henry Kissinger, to run his foreign policy. His resentments survived intact through his victory in 1968. ‘What I find humorous about him is that having defeated them, he still burned with that same resentment. It burned even more brightly in victory — he was unable to forgive his enemies for losing to him, which is just a wonderful character flaw.’
Nixon’s the One is drawn verbatim from the Oval Office tapes that Nixon kept for much of his presidency, initially to help him write his memoirs. But ultimately they led to his downfall when the Supreme Court ordered him to surrender them.
The tapes are fascinating because they give a real sense of everyday life in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lyndon Johnson had installed an audio system, but he had to press a button to begin recording so he was always aware his words were being preserved. Nixon’s machines were voice activated, so he would forget the tape was running, and therefore speak freely.
The exchanges with Kissinger are of course the most gripping. The sense of rivalry over who will be credited with any successes almost crackles on the screen. ‘These are two very smart people who are fascinated by power, to put it mildly, and who move like the dance of two widow spiders, and it’s not clear who’s in whose web.’
Some of their exchanges are hilariously banal, as when Kissinger drops by late one night in black tie after a diplomatic party. Nixon careers drunkenly around the Oval Office with a tumbler of whisky in his hand while Kissinger, at his most oleaginous, praises his boss’s recent public performances.
Then there are conversations with aides such as H.R. Haldeman, when Nixon’s country club racism and anti-Semitism come tumbling out. He and Haldeman agree it is just as well ‘negroes’ lack the ‘intellectual capacity’ for espionage, though Nixon vents his concern that ‘the Jews are born spies, they’re just in it up to their necks’. It is very clear from the tapes that Nixon is suspicious of Kissinger, not just because he’s too clever by half, but also because he’s a Jew.
Shearer is a polymath, as much a musician as a comedian/actor, who has his own weekly internet radio show, and is a hero to generations of American college students for starring in and co-writing This Is Spinal Tap, the spoof rockumentary.
His wife is Welsh, and in recent years he has spent half his time at their home in Notting Hill, and the other half in New Orleans. He is a fan and keen student of British comedy, notably the Goons, Pete and Dud, Monty Python. As a fan, he seems mildly perturbed by this year’s Python reunion, though he concedes ‘everyone’s gotta make money’.
He is particularly keen on Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. I suggest to him that the BBC is sufficiently embarrassed by Harry and Paul’s politically incorrect brand of comedy that they bury their recent work in graveyard schedules.
Shearer seems surprised they should do so, and emphasises his special weakness for the Northerner of the Year sketches, as well as Paul Whitehouse playing a scary gypsy woman placing curses on passers-by, which might be deemed provocative as border restrictions on Romanians are lifted.
‘But one of the jobs of comedy is to be transgressive of whatever the current pieties are,’ Shearer declares.
He recalls he was fired from a radio show in the 1970s for using the word ‘penis’ on air in the course of comic exchanges that lampooned racists by referring to ‘niggers’. Twenty years later, Howard Stern was making tens of millions of dollars a year talking endlessly of penises and vaginas on air, though by that time anyone would have been fired for using ‘the N word’ in any context at all. The lesson for comedians is to keep going against the grain, because ‘those pieties change at amazing speed’.
Being part of The Simpsons has made Shearer very rich indeed. I attempt to draw from him the slightest hint of self-loathing for earning tens of thousands of dollars per episode for speaking a few scripted words into a studio microphone, but he is splendidly unabashed. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to be part of one of the biggest hits in the history of international television and not enjoy it,’ he replies. ‘One gets into show business to do things that succeed, and this has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.’
As we part, Shearer pleads with me to stress that Nixon’s the One is a work of drama, not of political analysis. Given Nixon’s peculiar character, it is inevitably a work of comedy too.
And there is a note of poignancy too, not just in Nixon’s painfully tragic flaws. Each episode is introduced with some explanatory words from David Frost, filmed shortly before his death. There was no way that Frost was going to let Harry Shearer have the last word on Richard Nixon, even if it meant speaking from beyond the grave.