Alastair Campbell frightened me... he made Malcolm Tucker seem less outlandish | Jay Richardson interviews Peter Capaldi

Alastair Campbell frightened me... he made Malcolm Tucker seem less outlandish

Jay Richardson interviews Peter Capaldi

With the nation gripped by the phone hacking scandal, what would Malcolm Tucker make of this massive political, media and police fuckaggedon?

Peter Capaldi can only confirm that ‘he’ll be there’ when filming starts on The Thick Of It’s fourth series next year – the first since the Conservative-led collation government came to power. But quite what role The Gorbals Goebbels’ will be performing though, he can’t disclose.

‘I’ve suggested a stroke or heart attack many times, though they’ve never taken me up on it’ he laughs. ‘I’m surprised he’s still around.’

Creator Armando Iannucci is currently developing an American counterpart, Veep, for HBO, about a female vice-president played by Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And after the series was spun off into the Washington-set film In The Loop, The Thick Of seems to be at a crossroads. How can it continue if the central character is relegated to the opposition sidelines?

‘[Tucker] evolved into The Thick of It’s keeper of the dark soul’ Capaldi reflects. ‘He holds the idea of it, that innocent ministers will be persecuted by the forces of political necessity.

‘But the programme is an idea rather than a set of characters, so the idea could continue without them. I can’t speak for Armando but I don’t think it’s a show that’s reliant on cast. Part of the fun is you don’t know what you’re going to get. It could shift. And it should shift. It has to reflect politics and the reality of what’s going on.’

Capaldi and the show’s writing team have consistently downplayed Tucker’s debt to former Downing Street director of communications Alastair Campbell, despite former deputy prime minister John Prescott and Campbell’s partner Fiona Millar confirming the similarity. Yet the actor admits that speaking to the New Labour spin supremo at a dinner organised by Channel 4 helped refine his portrayal.

‘He frightened me because he was very charming’ Capaldi recalls. ‘And interesting, not because of anything he said but because of the way he was. Some of the more outlandish elements of our character suddenly fell into place and didn’t seem so outlandish anymore.

‘I saw it was possible to be in a position of power and be light-hearted about it. I don’t mean not attaching the proper gravitas to situations. But you can’t walk around with the world on your shoulders. He was a more rounded person, not just a pitbull spin doctor, an amusing, entertaining person. Good company. That didn’t mean other accusations about him didn’t make sense’.

Consequently, Tucker became ‘more sophisticated than I thought he was going to be. The fact that people liked him came as a surprise. But because they did, it gave him another level. Although he could be one-dimensional, I always tried to think of him as someone performing all the time. He goes into battle but there’s a human being beneath that.’

As the expletive-happy cabinet enforcer, Capaldi won a Bafta for best male performance in a comedy role, and he’s been offered several more reptilian roles off the back of him – from his oleaginous psychiatrist in the BBC’s hospital sitcom, Getting On, which he also directed, to Professor Marcus in Graham Linehan’s forthcoming stage adaptation of The Ladykillers, alongside Ben Miller and The Vicar of Dibley’s James Fleet.

On the eve of rehearsals, the Scot says of the role originally played by Alec Guinness in Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 film, that ‘there are definitely elements of Malcolm in the Professor, elements of Nosferatu too, and Alistair Sim, who Alec Guinness always maintained should have been cast in the film.

‘But it’s also the kind of part you don’t see anymore, where you have humorous criminals, humorous murderers really. The professor’s a very amusing and witty killer. There aren’t many of them on the West End stage at the moment.’

Most of Capaldi’s early roles, including his debut in Bill Forsyth’s Ealing-esque 1983 film Local Hero – ‘more Whisky Galore than The Ladykillers’ Grand Guignol’– were comedy and he’s clearly delighted that his ‘funny looking’ face and what Iannucci describes as his ‘funny run’ are being extolled and exploited again.

‘I don’t quite know why it’s been decided I should occupy this space. But they’re great roles, evil yet quite charming, with a real malevolence to the wit, a macabre feeling I’m quite at home with. They’re dark clowns who think they’re smarter than they are. No matter how much of a criminal genius The Professor believes he is, he’s outsmarted by a little old lady.’

The Ladykillers premieres at Liverpool Playhouse in October and has already broken the theatre’s box office records. Capaldi hails Linehan’s script as ‘very clever and very funny, with lots of gags. It’s true to the spirit of the original but very much his own take.

‘I don’t know how familiar people are with the film anyway. Everyone seems to think they know it. But if you question them more rigorously, you’ll find they mix it up with other films. That allows a certain freedom for us to make it whatever we want.’

After going toe to toe with James Gandolfini in In The Loop – ‘looking into the eyes of Tony Soprano, trying to give him as hard a time as possible. Not easy, but fun having Malcolm’s weaknesses exploited, seeing him under real pressure, rising and failing to rise to various challenges in a world he wasn’t boss of’ – his next cinematic role will be alongside another acting heavyweight, Ricky Grover, in the stand-up’s self-penned Big Fat Gypsy Gangster.

Formerly known as Bulla (The Movie), and featuring Omid Djalili, Rufus Hound and Steven Berkoff, the mockumentary is released in September and stars Grover as his armed robber alter-ego, Bulla, reuniting him with Capaldi after the ex-boxer’s portrayal of ward matron Hilary Loftus in Getting On.

‘He’s a wonderful talent and one of my favourite things in the show’ Capaldi enthuses. ‘Some of the improvisations he would do in Getting On were just amazing.’

Capaldi won’t be directing the third series of Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine’s Bafta-winning comedy because of his performing commitments, but he describes his shooting style on the sitcom as ‘completely Armando’s technique.

‘The writing’s slightly different because the girls write it in their own way. But in terms of using two cameras, not rehearsing and just letting people do stuff, the cutting, that’s absolutely The Thick of It. I’m indebted to him for that.’

With an Old Labour, Glaswegian background, Capaldi is a staunch defender of the NHS and BBC, maintaining no other channel would have backed the two comedies.

‘I don’t imagine anyone else making them. Because they depend on talent, the trade-off is that there’s not a huge amount of money spent on them and time is a luxury you don’t have. But that meant Armando was left alone and I was left fairly alone on Getting On just to make them how we saw fit.’

With his career in the doldrums before Tucker, the 53-year-old had contemplated quitting acting. His latest BBC project, which he’s currently editing, is Cricklewood Greats, a mockumentary he directed and co-wrote with Thick Of It scribe Tony Roche. Set in a fictitious London film studio and focusing on early, forgotten film stars, the autobiographical resonance is obvious.

He’s reluctant to say too much about the BBC 4 pilot, produced by Adam Tandy, after details of his proposed film with Ewan McGregor, The Great Pretender, were leaked before production was confirmed. But he does reveal it stars Terry Gilliam and The Thick of It’s Alex Macqueen.

‘The Pythons are the great unsung heroes of the British film industry’ Capaldi maintains. ‘Because they brought a whole pile of people from the BBC into movies and brought a very creative attitude and ethos into play.

‘Before them, British comedy movies weren’t particularly handsome or elegant. You were no longer getting movies like The Ladykillers by people like Alexander Mackendrick, very artful film directors and writers deploying all the gifts at their disposal, but tacky, quickie things like On The Buses and the Carry On movies. And I think the Pythons rode in and saved the day.

‘If you look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail for instance, it’s a brilliant looking film, even though it’s made with the most basic of resources. It was really ambitious and challenging. That was all dying before they came along.’

Published: 25 Jul 2011

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