Magazine article The Spectator

Miller's Tale

Magazine article The Spectator

Miller's Tale

Article excerpt

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. …

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