Midway through my one-on-one interview with Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane bursts into the room wearing a blue suit and a Bogart-style brimmed hat. A gummed-on moustache straggles his upper lip. The two begin shouting at each other in improvised banter, the premise of which seems to be that, unbeknown to each other, they’ve both been involved in a relationship with the director of the film they’re shooting.
“You didn’t tell me anything about it, did you?” screams Mayall in the voice of the affronted Rick from The Young Ones as he leaps from his chair. “I didn’t know that’s how you got the part. I thought you got it because you were good at acting.”
Momentarily I’m taken back to a photographer’s studio in London during December 1989 where I attended a Radio Times cover shoot for the Comic Strip. I hovered around with a notebook while Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmondson, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer and Robbie Coltrane dressed up in various guises and did funny things. It was the only way I could get a story.
I remember it as being the funniest group interview I’d ever done. I also recall that Coltrane was the instigator of many a comedic riff that December evening. He not only has an impressive collection of characters he was, and is, able to slip into (he might order a coffee as a cockney or as a European count), but he also creates a series of plausible scenarios at the drop of a fedora.
Almost 22 years later some of the old team, plus selected newcomers, have gathered at a majestic, but crumbling building in Plymouth’s Royal William Victualling Yard to film The Hunt for Tony Blair. It’s familiar Comic Strip territory – a genre spoof (in this case, film noir), a liberal-left agenda and lots of silliness and irreverence.
The premise here is that Tony Blair is a desperate killer on the run. The Chilcot Inquiry hearings into the Iraq War was the inspiration for the director and co-writer Peter Richardson.
The Comic Strip thrived between 1982 and 1993 when there were five series, six specials and two feature films. Since then there have been only three specials, the last of which (Sex Actually) got roughed up by the critics. Yet the old-timers are reluctant to use words such as reunion or comeback.
“We have reunions all the time,” says Coltrane, who plays Detective Inspector Hutton, Blair’s pursuer from the Met. “We see each other when we can. It’s difficult because I live in Scotland and they live in Devon.”
Rik Mayall plays a variety performer, Professor Predictor, who pays the price for publicly predicting that there are no WMD in Iraq. When I ask him what it’s like being back with the gang, he says, “I still claim I’ve always been with the gang, but that the gang tends to expand.”
But he thinks that the Comic Strip have done 75 productions (correct answer, 41) and that the last one was in 2010 or 2009 (it was actually 2005).
Those joining the gang for the first time are united in their admiration of what to them is a comedy institution. Stephen Mangan, who plays Blair, describes himself as a “massive fan” of the Comic Strip. “They were iconic shows. I would look forward to each one coming round. The people involved defined British comedy during my formative years. And, like many others of that period, I spent most of my time impersonating Rik in The Young Ones.”
The even younger James Buckley, best known as Jay Cartwright in The Inbetweeners (a Shakespeare-quoting cop in this film), says that he was “obsessed” with The Young Ones. Did he turn into a gushing fan when he met Mayall? “A little bit,” he admits. “I told him he was a massive hero of mine. He told me that he’d lost a bit of weight and so he was a slim hero of mine.”
Make fun, not war
The political issues that inform the film don’t interest Buckley. “I’m just an actor. I was only ten when New Labour came into power.” Did the Iraq War loom large in his life? “I was still at school. It was all sort of confusing for me. I don’t quite understand it. I’d like to be more educated on the subject before making a comment.”
The other cast members I speak to have no such reservations. Robbie Coltrane has long been a vocal Labour Party supporter, helped with its media campaigns, and has met both Blair and Brown.
“Tony Blair is very charismatic,” he says. “He really is. I’ve known Gordy Brown since the 1970s and have always thought he was a good and decent man, but he shouldn’t have agreed to the war in Iraq.”
Stephen Mangan also voted for Labour. “Like everyone else I got swept along on a huge wave of excitement and anticipation,” he says. “We felt it was the beginning of a new era and Blair did a lot of great things, but the job of prime minister exposes a person’s weaknesses and he had to deal with the Iraq War and Bush. I felt betrayed.”
Essential to the comedy of The Hunt for Tony Blair – shot in black and white – is the fact that no actor looks like the character they portray. Jennifer Saunders’ Margaret Thatcher is based on Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the Stephen Mangan I see on set looks no different to the one in the BBC comedy series Episodes. Nigel Planer is hardly a dead ringer for Peter Mandelson, Harry Enfield has probably never been mistaken for Alastair Campbell, and even with a dark hairpiece, Ford Kiernan couldn’t pass for Gordon Brown.
“They’re not impersonations,” says Kiernan. “They’re half way between a cartoon and Spitting Image.”
Mangan swotted for the role by reading Blair’s autobiography and watching YouTube. He took the mannerisms and vocal inflections, but didn’t try to mimic the former leader. “We’re doing a comedy, not a docudrama,” he says. “In a way it’s easier for me than playing fictional characters like Adrian Mole and Dirk Gently, because books have fervent admirers who each have their own idea of how that person should be. At least there’s a real Tony Blair and my comic version of him will have a bit of me, a bit of him and a bit of film noir. A real hybrid.”
The danger of a political comedy is that it does no more than pull faces at teacher. There’s no searing attack on either policies or behaviour. “There is nothing wrong with just getting a laugh,” says Mayall, “but I think wit, mere wit, doesn’t satisfy me enough.”
Mangan, too, has a high view of what humour can achieve. He thinks that when it’s done well it can contribute to society’s debate about its values. “Comedy can skewer politicians in a way that a year’s worth of Newsnight, Panorama and Question Time will never be able to. It can get to the heart of what somebody is like. You can shine a light on an aspect of someone’s character in a way that it’s very hard to do in any other field.”
Robbie sees red
When I last spoke to Robbie Coltrane, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the Berlin Wall had just been toppled. He’s since had a highly successful career that has included two Bond films, three series of Cracker, eight Harry Potter films and an OBE. The man once known as ‘‘Red Robbie’’ has every reason to become cynical about the effectiveness of political satire, or to have become less radical. He hasn’t done either.
“I’m still angry about the same things and the same things make me laugh, although I’ve now got two children and they make me laugh about things I never thought were funny before. Children open doors for you.
“I think it’s the younger comedians who may have got a bit cynical and think that it doesn’t matter what you say because no one listens. Look at the government we’ve got today. Nobody really voted for them, did they? They formed a hideous marriage which doesn’t seem to please anyone.
“It was easy for us when we started making Comic Strip because the Tories were in charge, factories were being closed, there was a miners’ strike and it was clear who the enemy was. “Now when you see Tony Blair wandering around the Middle East as a Peace Envoy, you really don’t need to be a brilliant political satirist to see the humour in that.”
The Comic Strip Presents, Friday 9pm, Channel 4