Read all about it – how the Comic Strip turned the phone hacking scandal into comedy gold

Maxine Peake, Stephen Mangan and the other cast of Red Top open up on their 70s-inspired take on News International

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There’s a big, proud sign over a doorway at Plymouth Civic Centre: “Walk tall, you are entering Sun country.” Except this building is no longer Plymouth Civic Centre – the council workers all moved out months ago – and it isn’t really “Sun country”, either. In reality, the 15-storey 60s council building is spending a few weeks masquerading as the HQ of Britain’s most controversial red-top newspapers, The Sun and the (now-defunct) News of the World, while the Comic Strip film its latest TV comedy.

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If you were to go to the real Sun’s London office, you would indeed see a “Walk tall” sign by one of the entrances. But this detail is the closest that Red Top – a satirical take on the recent newspaper phone-hacking scandal – comes to real life. This is Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and all the other key players, as you’ve never seen them before.

Maxine Peake plays this fictional version of Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor who went on to become chief executive of the paper’s parent company. Peake’s Rebekah has the red, tousled hair and knee-high leather boots that you might expect. But she also whizzes everywhere on rollerskates, like an extra in Starlight Express. This fictional Rebekah has an appalling memory, meaning she has trouble recalling any details of anything that might possibly get her into trouble. At one point in the film, she says dolefully to Tony Blair: “It’s this phone-hacking nightmare, Tony, which of course I know nothing about.” Before accidentally knocking her incriminating notebook out of the window.

Peake says that her fictionalised Rebekah Brooks, “Sort of forgets things, or doesn’t see things. Or thinks she doesn’t see things. She only runs the paper. She doesn’t know what anyone else is up to.”

The real Brooks was, of course, acquitted of all charges after convincing a jury that she had no knowledge of the wrongdoing that was happening in the ranks. What was Peake’s take on this? “If you’re in charge of something, you’re not doing your job very well if you don’t know it was going on.”

Rupert Murdoch (Nigel Planer), meanwhile, is a humble, hen-pecked husband. And Tony Blair is a moustached hippy who strolls about in a bright turquoise shirt, shiny silver platform shoes and an orange neckerchief. (“I look like John Lennon’s hideous cousin!” complains Stephen Mangan, who plays him.) In fact, there’s long hair and loud paisley everywhere. Why the 70s feel? Writer Peter Richardson thought it would be amusing to place the action of the 2014 trial of Brooks and Andy Coulson, her successor as News of the World editor, knee-deep in hilarious hippy silliness.

The Comic Strip – which grew out of London’s Comedy Store club and came together for the first time for Channel 4’s opening night in 1982 – have made more than 40 spoofs over the years. Peter Richardson is the linchpin who holds the whole thing together. This time he’s signed up only two of the original performers – Nigel Planer and Alexei Sayle. But the rest of the cast is pretty impressive: as well as Peake and Mangan, there are also roles for Russell Tovey as Coulson, and Harry Enfield as actor and presenter Ross Kemp, Brooks’s ex-husband.

So what do the cast members make of the tabloid newspapers they’re satirising? “I’ve always been quite vocal about my distaste for Murdoch,” says Peake, a proud socialist. “It’s very frightening that one person can rule an entire country’s press. The tabloids don’t mind if they destroy somebody because they sell a few more papers.” 

Stephen Mangan has taken his dislike a step further and hasn’t spoken to a red-top newspaper for 15 years. “I haven’t given an interview to the tabloid press ever since a report in the Daily Mirror suggested that my dead mother might have helped me to win the part of Adrian Mole from beyond the grave. The reporter’s theory was that my mum had given me the Adrian Mole books when I was a teenager, then she died – and her death prompted me to give up law and become an actor…It was hogwash.”

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Stephen Mangan as Tony Blair

But doesn’t bypassing the tabloids hold Mangan’s career back? The papers may be much less popular than they once were – nowhere near their peak in the 1950s, when the News of the World sold more than eight million copies – but they are still big beasts. Today The Sun sells 1.8 million copies daily. Are big name stars today unable to have a successful career while bypassing the people the tabloids speak to?

“No, I don’t think so,” says Mangan. “My Twitter feed has 300,000 followers. And those people are actually interested in me – rather than people who’ve never heard of me and couldn’t care less about me.”

What if a star is found taking illegal drugs? Shouldn’t criminal behaviour be exposed?

“The papers are not doing it to clean up the streets, are they?” snorts Mangan. In any case, he claims, plenty of journalists, “Are indulging in very similar behaviour themselves. Isn’t that the biggest hypocrisy of all?”

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And what does Rupert Murdoch say about that? Not the real Murdoch, but Nigel Planer, who plays him.

“I’d be worried to live in a society where there were laws restraining the press,” says Planer, while at the same time pointing out that he’s had reporters rifling through his dustbins and ringing his parents pretending to be one of his friends. “The usual sort of grubby stuff,” says Planer.

“I don’t buy that thing that says: ‘You put yourself in the public eye. You’re fair game’. Why that means you have no right to a private life, I’ve no idea.”

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The Comic Strip Presents: Red Top is on Gold tonight (Wednesday 20th January) at 10.00pm