Glasgow Comedy Festival - Chris Addison
From middle-class ponce to Thick of It apparatchik, Chris Addison is a slave to the punchline, finds Mark Fisher.
When you look back across the shows Chris Addison has brought to the Edinburgh Fringe over the past decade it’s hard to imagine there might be a unifying idea. What link could there possibly be between Atomicity, a show about the fabric of the universe, Civilisation, about mankind’s cultural decline, Port Out, Starboard Home on the charms of being a ‘middle-class ponce’ and The Ape that Got Lucky, which found fun in anthropology? The only obvious connections are the two Perrier nominations, a surfeit of brainy ideas and a lot of laughs. But, as the comedian has realised, there is a recurring theme. It’s all about control.
‘It’s all about how humans control the world or are controlled by it,’ says the stand-up who is taking a break from writing his first sitcom, Lab Rats, to do a one-off gig at the Glasgow Comedy Festival. ‘I did a similar one-off show at The Stand in Edinburgh about a year ago and I realised that control was the thing that connected all these shows together.’
Comedy was less a calling than something he fell into, he says, so he’s never been driven by the same degree of ambition as some stand-ups. Yet look at the phenomenal volume of Addison’s output and you can only think there must be something propelling him forward.
If it isn’t ambition that’s compelled the Manchester-born comic to produce one collection of comic verse (Cautionary Tales for Grown-Ups), two radio series’ of Civilisation, three of The Department as well as a tongue-in-cheek financial column for The Guardian, not to mention sundry quiz show appearances and gag writing for Harry Hill and Davina McCall - all before the age of 35 - then is it so wrong to imagine he might be trying to impose a controlling order on the world?
For once in our conversation, the sharp and articulate stand-up is momentarily thrown. Yes, he concedes, perhaps there is something in the theory.
‘Am I a control freak?’ he hesitates. ‘I don’t know. You’d probably have to ask somebody else. I’m going to go away and worry about that. I suppose anybody who wants to pursue a career in comedy has to be disciplined. You have to be controlling in that you have to make the decision yourself and not be scared into a decision, otherwise you end up doing shitty things.’
He pauses for reflection. ‘Yes, all right, you can have that. But I’m not so much a control freak as a control dork. I’m less threatening than a freak.’
Of course, nowhere has the controlling impulse been more excruciatingly exposed than in The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s BAFTA-award winning satire on the corridors of power in Blair’s Britain. It’s the show that earned Addison a nomination as best newcomer in the British Comedy Awards for his role as Oliver Reeder, the beleaguered junior policy advisor with the hots for his opposite number in the Tory camp, and which, more than anything, has brought his face to a wider audience. Subjecting himself to the maelstrom of swear words delivered with fearsome intensity by Peter Capaldi, Addison demonstrated he could cut it as an actor in a comedy show that depends on the performers playing it straight.
‘As a cast we were all amazed by the way these people behaved,’ he says. ‘When we first recorded it in January 2005, Armando Iannucci and Martin Sixsmith, who had worked in the Department of Transport and was our reality consultant, would have all these lunches with Whitehall sources and they’d tell us these extraordinary tales. We were uneasy about the amount of swearing in The Thick of It, but Martin said, no, this really is how they talk in this incredibly pressured environment. I suppose we felt pressured doing the show, so it didn’t take too much of a leap of imagination for us. And it’s also worth remembering that when he turns it on, Peter Capaldi is terrifying, so that requires no leap of imagination.
‘The characters don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re clueless, fretful and fearful. They never feel in control. When Capaldi’s character Malcolm has his breakdown at the end of the Christmas special, it’s about him losing control.’
As is so often the way with political satire, The Thick of It has been embraced by the very politicians it sends up. That, however, doesn’t faze Addison. ‘For a start, why would you believe them?’ he says. ‘Just before the first series went out we did a screening in Westminster to MPs and their acolytes. It was interesting to hear the hollow laughs and to see the terror they seemed to feel when Malcolm came on. I never really believed Mrs Thatcher when she said she liked Yes, Prime Minister. They’ve probably been told to say they like it.’
He’s looking forward to filming a single episode follow-up to the Christmas special soon and a second series later in the year. In the meantime, this month he is on our screens in BBC Four’s The Hunt for Middle England and he is working on his debut novel as well as scripting Lab Rats, a surreal sitcom set in a university science laboratory and scheduled for the autumn.
If control is the governing spirit of all this creativity, comedy is the dominant form. Even writing a novel, he knows he won’t be able to resist the punchline. ‘A lot of comedians do move into more serious forms as they grow older and I think that’s because comedy isn’t taken very seriously,’ he says. ‘Despite its difficulty, it’s seen as an idiot artform and that becomes grating. It hasn’t become grating for me. Almost inevitably my novel will be comic. It’s hard not to write jokes. It’s a terrible compulsion. I know people who would ruin their lives for a joke. If they felt it inside, even at the altar they couldn’t choke it back.’
Now performing only his third gig of the year, he can’t wait for his night at the Tron. ‘It fills me with the kind of joy that a tour gig wouldn’t,’ he says, promising a greatest hits evening. ‘I can’t imagine not doing stand-up, it’s in your blood, but I’ve enjoyed it so much more since I’ve done other things as well.’
Chris Addison, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 23 Mar. The Hunt for Middle England, BBC Four, Sun 4 Mar, 9pm.
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