Chris Addison on Veep, Doctor Who - and why he's changing direction
The "busybody know-it-all" star of The Thick of It tells Jack Seale about Trying Again, his radically different new comedy for Sky Living
"A bold left turn? Yeah, I suppose so. I’m conscious of bold left turns, they can catch you out. But I’ve wanted to do this for years."
To television audiences, Chris Addison is Ollie Reeder from The Thick of It, a weak but dastardly politico in Armando Iannucci's scathing satire. He's also a regular on Mock the Week, which isn't as fiery as it was in the Frankie Boyle years, but still isn't exactly Pebble Mill at One. Addison's new project? Playing the husband of former EastEnders star Jo Joyner in a heartfelt relationship comedy called Trying Again, on the female-skewing Sky Living. For co-creator Addison and the show's writer, Thick of It/Peep Show scribe Simon Blackwell, this is definitely a change of direction.
"Simon and I wanted to find a thing he could write and I could be in. Of course we’re both associated with The Thick of It, and that’s wonderful, but we didn’t create it, and we are both fans of romantic comedy. It's a maligned genre, because so much of it is dreadful. But when it’s done correctly, it's joyous. We wanted something warm and emotional, flexing the muscles we weren’t flexing with The Thick Of It."
Addison and Blackwell planned a rom-com that would fit inside the genre without trotting out its clichés. The most obvious rough edge: so many romantic comedies feature wronged, patient women coping with feckless men but, in Trying Again, central couple Matt and Meg are recovering from her affair, not his. "Once we hit on that idea, that’s when we went: 'Oh, there’s something really good in this.'"
Trying Again gently confounds more expectations by giving established comic Addison the role of quiet, nervous Kendal tourist adviser Matt. ("We passionately wanted to make something that had nothing to do with London. No characters who are teachers or publishers or in advertising. We wanted people who have jobs, not careers.") He is noticeably less funny than his partner, garrulous doctor's receptionist Meg. Jo Joyner, formerly Albert Square's beleaguered Tanya, gets the bulk of the funny lines.
"It’s so rare to come across female characters who aren’t buzzkills in sitcoms. It’s the woman going, ‘Guys, come on, don’t be ridiculous.' We wanted to make Meg fully rounded. That's vital, because it’s difficult to make a character who’s had an affair lovable, and you need to love Meg straight away, you need to forgive her, or at least think there must have been a reason.”
Addison is a flurry of thin limbs, fast ideas and enthusiasm, bouncing forward and back on a ginormous sofa in the London hotel where we meet. Everything about Trying Again fires him with pride, but his eyes light up still more whenever Joyner’s mentioned. He frequently gestures towards the next room where she’s also doing interviews, referring joshingly to “her”, “that one” or simply “Joyner”, reflecting an on-set rapport that he says took no time to establish. As the crucial female character in a show created by men, Joyner makes it all tick. Addison’s gratitude and admiration are proudly worn.
“Jo is a phenomenal comedian, she’s astonishing. It took so long to cast her. We saw brilliant people who were all just missing that little punch. Then Joyner came in and blew the room apart a bit, because she’s so – she’s just – she’s basically life itself, Jo, and she read Meg as somebody who’s not going to take this lying down, and yes she’s sorry, but come on, let’s go.”
As Matt, Addison leaves behind the craven snake he played in The Thick of It to become a romantic lead. Apart from straightening his hair (“Huge plumes of black smoke! Terrifying”), he needed to ditch the snark and be – gulp – likeable. “Ollie’s principal emotion was fear, and that’s quite easy for me to play as essentially a fearful person! But you have to be hurt, and you have to be angry and open, and do proper acting if you’re going to play Matt.
“Am I like Matt? I’m as scared as he is, but less cautious. I am with a woman who’s way out of my league, though…”
In real life, Addison is 42 and married with two young children. And, apart from him apparently punching above his weight, that’s all we know. “That’s all you need to know. I’ve kept my family out of it. I’ve managed to avoid ever talking about them.”
The Sunday supplements won’t be nosing round a gorgeous, suspiciously tidy Addison family kitchen any time soon, then? “I can’t bear that. Why would I let people into my house? That thing where people lay their entire life open to PR is baffling. I'll help at my kids’ school, but I don’t open the fair or draw the raffle. I want to be a dad at the gate, not him off the TV.”
What about directing the school play? “Oh my god, that would put me off, wouldn’t it? I’d send my card back in after that! I’d be just terrible to my own kid. ‘Try and think about where your character is, what does he want at this stage? Why does Joseph want this room..?’”
Addison's qualifications for marshalling a coherent Nativity would, however, be impeccable. He's a stand-up comedian, panel-show wisecracker and comic actor but he's also a TV director, a job he attacks with as much vim as the other, higher-profile roles, if not more. Once his beloved Trying Again is in the can, promoted and in the Sky Living schedules ready to roll, Addison is off to Baltimore to work on season three of HBO's Veep, the American cousin of The Thick of It. Showrunner Armando Iannucci has hired Addison not to perform, but to direct the likes of Seinfeld superstar and multiple Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
So. Talk us through the first time you said to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "Meh. Try that again."
"Ha, that's it! Yes. Yeah, that’s very hard. I'd practised, because I had to say it to Peter [Capaldi] on The Thick of It, and that was hard enough. Harder, actually. But I did it because directing is the thing."
Addison's eyes are ablaze again. Limbs everywhere. "I never sit and watch a show or a play or anything without going, ‘Oh, now, what I’d do is…’ On Veep I was probably thinking, ‘I hope this is all just fine, so I don’t have to say anything.’ But you sit behind the monitors, and you watch the scene, and as difficult as it is to say to Julia – who is the best comic actor of her generation, without question, so what do you think you're doing? – as difficult as it is to say to her, 'Listen, what about…’, it’s a stronger push to see something on screen and go, ‘No no, I know how we solve this.’ That busybody know-it-all gene is far stronger than the embarrassment gene.
"And I very quickly realised that actually, what Julia and Peter and everybody wants is somebody saying, 'How about this, how about this.' They’re interested in getting it right. Directing is being the person who runs a creative collaboration."
Talking of Peter Capaldi, what sort of Doctor have we got?
"I’ve said for years, he is ideal. I thought Matt Smith was terrific, I loved David Tennant, Chris Eccleston, they’ve all been great, since it came back. But what I really have missed, as someone who grew up on what is now called ‘classic’ Doctor Who, is the mercurial, unknowable, frightening side of the Doctor. We haven’t had the Doctor where you go, ‘I don’t know if I’m safe with this person.' He should feel like at times he’s kind of an imp, and at other times like he’s a massive genie.
"Peter will give it that. And he looks like he has seen the twelve hundred years of the Doctor’s existence. He'll be this time round’s Tom Baker, the one that everybody thinks of."
He seems less likely to announce that a certain hat is "cool".
"Yes, I don’t think that will happen. I really love Matt Smith. There’s something about him, his angularity, which I understand, I identify with! But I never quite felt that any of the ones we’ve seen since 2005 could be imperious. That’s a note that’s missing from the scale. Peter will bring that back. I’m beyond excited. It’s all I can do not to drive down to Cardiff."
Although Addison has a bulletproof opinion on most things – and if he doesn’t, he’ll unerringly think one through on the hoof – he mainly keeps his thoughts on issues outside comedy and the craft of making television quiet, discreetly sharing them merely with his 286,000 Twitter followers. “That’s a self-selecting audience. Unfollow me, everybody’s fine. But I’ve always turned down Question Time. I always will. I can’t bear seeing comics on Question Time. Stop it! Have a scientist on there. Have people who know what they’re talking about. Let’s have a social worker from a tough part of Birmingham, not a comedian.”
In any case, Addison says he already feels guilty enough that making comedy takes him away from family duties. What sort of dad is he? "Hopelessly inconsistent. Like most parents, I’m guilt-ridden at my inadequacies. I feel I should be doing something different. The papers are all full of articles about people who’ve made some kind of wooden castle in the garden with their children. Every time I put the telly on I think we should be baking an artisan loaf or something."
So why didn’t he create a series about parenting, not just relationships?
“Well do you know, there was already a really good sitcom about that. It’s quite hard to express how good Outnumbered was. You found it bleak? Yes, that’s the point! That’s what I like. It’s the sand in the oyster.
“That’s what we wanted to do with this show, make something that’s not completely comfortable. It’s warm but it’s not cosy, Trying Again. It’s easy to make comedy out of things that are crazily big. But the little things that you think about at four in the morning, or when you’re trying to figure out: ‘Why is it I don’t feel so good today?’ If you make a comedy out of those, it’s a rich seam.”
Trying Again starts on Sky Living at 9pm on 24 April.