As I see itby Mark Broatch
Comedian David Mitchell on hypocrisy, poshness and what gets him really angry.
When David Mitchell was very young, he toyed with the idea of being prime minister, he says with the air of someone who regrets having ever opened his mouth on the matter. So when he became leader of the UK, what would his party have been? “I don’t think I’d decided,” he says in that high, flat, appealingly posh voice. “In the early 80s – when I was a young child, I hasten to add – I think I would have been a Tory, on the basis that they were in power.”
He’d made the basic logical connection that the Conservatives actually won elections. “But at the same time, with my Star Wars figures, I was rather fonder of Darth Vader than Luke Skywalker.”
By his late teens, he would have been happier being a left-leaning politician. Mind you, he says, this predated “by weeks” the realisation that he didn’t want to be any sort of politician at all. “Sadly, politicians don’t do nearly as much standing up and making speeches and arguing in debates as they do apologising for things and attempting to kiss babies. Apart from anything else, I’m a terrible hypocrite, which is frowned upon in politics. Although it’s not absolutely prohibited, of course.”
Besides, he deeply loves what he does. Which is what, exactly? Carping from the sidelines, largely in the form of appearing on TV panel shows. As he once said on Was it Something I Said?, a quotations-based show he hosts: “All I can do is sit behind an inexplicably shiny desk and poorly read things.”
Such desks include those on Stephen Fry’s QI and radio show The Unbelievable Truth. But he’s probably best known in this country for Would I Lie to You?, in which his team of well-knowns competes with comedian Lee Mack’s team to try to get away with telling fibs or, occasionally, the truth.
Mitchell’s assertion that he just turns up and reads autocues is, of course, Bafta-winning understatement. First, because being funny on demand is far from easy, and second, because he’s a superb comic actor, as anyone who’s seen the semi-cult comedy Peep Show or the many skit shows he’s done with Robert Webb can attest.
And they do attest. In droves. Does Mitchell understand his geeky sex appeal? “I don’t think I do, and I don’t entirely believe I have that appeal. I think that’s just an expression of enthusiasm in a form I’d be slightly startled by. There’s something about me people like to startle.”
But he does accept that he has a devoted fan club. “I’m a comedian and a performer and therefore I weirdly need the approval of strangers. I count myself geeky, and the idea that knowing things, being interested in things, being able to associate things and combine that with a bit of flippant joking, which is my feeling of what the geeky world is about, is something I’m thoroughly in favour of. If I have a fan base, I’d like to think it’s not at all wholesome or outdoorsy.”
Mitchell has an ocean of opinions. He writes a weekly column in the Observer and has gathered the best into a new book, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse. If you could draw a philosophical line through his opinionising, it’s that he wants to bring order to the world. But he understands that there’s a tension between progression and conservatism.
“In terms of what I’d actively do if I were in charge of the world – which I don’t want to be – it would be left-leaning and redistributive and progressive; things that provide opportunity for all are to be recommended and the status quo is to be questioned. That’s sort of what I think about political issues. But what I feel is intensely small-c conservative. Aesthetically I’m very much of the status quo.”
This means he’s hugely in favour of the BBC and the National Health Service, but on matters of civil disobedience, for example, he’s conflicted. “I think it’s so important that people should have the right to protest, but I hate the thought of protesting. Emotionally I’m not an outsider, I’m not a bohemian, I’m of the established order. Even if, intellectually, a lot about it I’m not so keen on.”
In the book he calls himself “tediously antiquarian” – what’s he old-fashioned about? “I’m sitting in a room with nice patterned wallpaper, rugs on the floor, exposed floorboards – and that’s how I like a room to be. I’m sceptical of novelty. I’ll always presume that any solution someone presents to an old problem will have been tried before. I believe in things being cyclical and tediously inevitable.”
He believes taking comfort in the familiar is sane, perhaps especially given that we live in a world of terrifying and probably unprecedented technological and environmental change, “with everything between wondrous and disastrous consequences”.
He does get genuinely angry about some things – “something that’s wrong and it’s illogically wrong. When there’s an unfairness. Something that’s unjust and simply doesn’t make sense will enrage me, whereas huge, complex, insoluble geopolitical problems I find easier to ignore.”
Like what? Like the wearing of poppies. And he starts to get properly angry – or at least controlled, articulate, apologetic, English angry. “I think the poppy is a very moving symbol of our response to the First World War, initially, as a terrible, frightening, murderous conflict that the world got into and couldn’t get out of. So I’m all for poppy wearing. But what absolutely maddens me is when people effectively make it compulsory. Most people tend to wear poppies around about November the 11th [Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I], but when suddenly the press turns it into a thing where if one politician starts wearing it a day later and another politician gets condemned, that’s utterly destroyed this thing that we shared, this point of consensus and regret.” It’s not the biggest issue in the world but the fact of that unfairness, and angry people destroying the very symbol they’re supposedly advocating, “massively gets my goat”.
In fact his goat is got by many such grievances. “Sometimes a group of people’s manufactured outrage is an offensive thing in itself and worthy of condemnation. And too often when people are having a massive row about a thing” – he notes an artwork in which a cross was depicted in urine – “you’re immediately thinking, ‘Okay, on whose side am I? The artistic community who want to express themselves in this provocative way, or the people of Catholic faith who think that artwork was disgraceful and therefore destroyed it?’ Who’s right? The obvious answer is: none of them. You shouldn’t have to pick sides between such people, because they’re incredibly like each other and the world would be a much better place if neither group got any attention at all.”
Yet isn’t it the role of comedians like him to push limits? “Absolutely, but you’ve got to know why you’re doing it. If you’re just doing it to annoy people, that’s not a good enough reason.”
Anyway, he’s happier now than when he started writing the columns – thanks to getting married. “Meeting Victoria [Coren] and getting married has made my day-to-day outlook much sunnier. It’s made me keener on jokes and less desperate to find an argument.”
They met in 2007, at a film premiere, he recounts in his 2012 book Back Story: A Memoir. They’d said hello before, at some after-show drinks. “This meeting was different though. Last time, I hadn’t fallen in love with her.” They subsequently went on a few dates, but sadly, she called it off. Her father, broadcaster Alan Coren, had just died, and she’d met someone else. He treasured that email, a “reluctant brush-off”. Previously he’d mined his persona – “the lonely, dysfunctional, OCD loser” – for laughs. Now being single and “hopelessly in love” – and with “everyone saying I was the next Stephen Fry” – made him lonely. He waited three years for this “funny, bright, sexy, nervous and confident” woman. They married in 2012.
Mitchell says he loves all the shows he appears on, but he probably most enjoys Would I Lie to You? “Because that’s just a very comfortable, jolly environment. I’m a regular, so I’m allowed to leave my stuff behind the desk.” He’s surprised to hear New Zealand did a version of the show, but less so to learn it was terrible. It needs a broad range of well-known people to choose from. “The key thing is having guests on who the audience has preconceived ideas about.”
In Britain, those preconceptions include class. I ask him if he’s very posh. “No. I’m sort of middle middle class.” But class obsession means he gets put on the posh side of the “posh, not posh” line. He had a nice upbringing, “but not opulent”. Suitable for a prime minister? Perhaps. Ideal for a comic. It’s complicated, he says, by geographical markers – Lee Mack is from northern England so people assume he’s lower in the social order. “I’m posher than him, but not by much. It’s useful for the show to pretend he was born in a ditch and I was born in a palace.”
Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse, by David Mitchell (Faber/Allen & Unwin, $35).
Mitchell on …
Television: Without the BBC, the standard of broadcasting in the UK would decline. A lot of brilliant TV is made in America, but if you go there and turn on the box “it’s a stream of crap like you wouldn’t believe”.
His heroes: In comedy, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan. Outside of it, “I am a big fan of Winston Churchill. He wasn’t always right, but when it mattered he was right. He also strikes me as someone who was politically incredibly successful and astute, but also he was funny. Not enough politicians these days strike me as having a sense of humour.”
His favourite sketch: “If I had to pick it would be ‘Are We the Baddies?’” (tinyurl.com/BaddiesNZ) in which the Nazi officers notice the death skulls on each other’s caps. “It’s a joke I’m pleased I thought of.”
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