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Ben Miller

Published 30 November 2011

Matthew Amer talks to the TV star, currently appearing in The Ladykillers, about unicycling, electrons and playing nasty.

“This is a nightmare! I’d never have signed up for this if you’d told me I was going to have to work between Christmas and New Year!”

Ah, the serene sounds of an actor who hasn’t fully explored his contract before signing on the dotted line. No evenings bingeing on Christmas pudding and mince pies for him. No entire weekends lost to a Baileys overdose. Just hard graft on the stage entertaining audiences who have all had to loosen their trousers a little after the seasonal excesses.

Luckily Miller, best known as one half of comedy duo Armstrong And Miller or as Death In Paradise’s DI Richard Poole, is laughing through his embarrassing admission, much as he does for most of our interview. He may have failed to grasp the complexities of performance schedules and he may well have the tiniest of tiny babies to care for during the Christmas period – his partner is due in late December – but he’s having a hoot performing in Graham Linehan’s adaptation of classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers.

He was, Miller tells me, as he sits, overawed, in the bar of the Gielgud theatre, a fan of the film before the opportunity to appear in this stage version presented itself. But it was not that which drew him to the production, rather the attachment of director Sean Foley, who last year directed Armstrong And Miller’s live tour. “I wanted to carry on working with him, so I just begged him,” Miller admits.

I wanted to carry on working with him, so I just begged him

The film, and subsequently the play, has, Miller explains, “an incredibly good dramatic premise. The idea of this gang living in this old lady’s house. She discovers what they’re up to and they’re faced with the decision of whether to kill her or not. That central premise is timeless.”

Timeless it may be, but this is not an updated, rebooted, iPad generation version of the piece; the period is still very much in tact, which leaves Miller playing a 1950s Romanian gypsy hoodlum. It’s a role that offers a gift of an accent and the opportunity to play a far more sinister role than those with which he is more normally associated. “He’s the real darkness in the story,” Miller says of his character Louis. “There has to be somebody there who you believe would kill the old lady. It’s nice to play a nasty character, a character without many redeeming qualities who is brutal and selfish and a completely nasty piece of work.”

“My favourite bits in the play,” he continues, “which I was convinced were in the film, aren’t in it at all.” Miller refrained from watching the classic Alec Guinness movie while rehearsing and performing this new adaptation by Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Linehan in Liverpool. It was only when the Liverpool run was concluded and the production, which also stars Peter Capaldi, James Fleet, Clive Rowe, Stephen Wight and Marcia Warren, moved south that he dug out the DVD.

Though, Miller assures me, he has always been committed to live performance – he and Armstrong have toured their sketch shows around the UK and deliberately film before a live audience – Miller hasn’t taken to the stage in a play since the early 90s. “Xander [Armstrong] and I toyed with the idea of doing Art for a while but ended up not doing it,” he laughs, “largely because we couldn’t agree on who the third person should be.” So this experience has come as somewhat of a surprise, and not just because of the lack of festive break. In TV, he giggles, “you just turn up and have not so much as a corned beef sandwich before you’re emoting about your dead guinea pig or something. This theatre lark, there’s a lot of effort goes into it.”

Of course, when that effort pays off, the rewards can be fantastic. Back when the world had yet to hear about either of them in any real sense, Miller shared a flat with playwright Jez Butterworth, whose play Jerusalem has collected just about every award going both in London and in the US.

“This theatre lark, there’s a lot of effort goes into it”

“We just wanted to make a living if we could,” he says, thinking back to those flat-sharing days. “It’s amazing what’s happened. I’ve loved all the plays that Jez has written, but I think there’s something mature in Jerusalem.”

“It’s the play of my generation,” he continues. “It’s the play that has spoken the most to me in my lifetime about the England that I’ve grown up in, about the complications of living in England. And it’s the greatest stage performance I’ve seen since Robert Lindsay playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange theatre, which was the performance that made me want to become an actor. Mark [Rylance] is just astounding.”

If Miller is in awe of Butterworth’s playwriting ability, I’d hazard a guess that Butterworth is equally as impressed with how far his old flatmate has come in the acting and comedy stakes. In an era when comedians are superstars, Armstrong And Miller are at the top of the sketch comedy tree, following two stints together honing their art.

Their next show together, however, leaves sketches behind for a more story-led, if equally silly, structure. Felix And Murdo, a pilot written by Men Behaving Badly’s Simon Nye, goes out on Channel 4 over the Christmas period (Miller will be on stage, so probably won’t get a chance to watch it.) In it the comic pair play Edwardian gents with time on their hands. “I try and get some tickets for a performing dwarf in the music hall and Xander enters the Olympics in the javelin.” Just your average day in Edwardian England then.

Somewhat bizarrely, next year’s big project, though, may have nothing to do with acting or comedy at all, as Miller is returning to the subject that took him to Cambridge – where his comedy aspirations and partnership with Armstrong first started – in the first place. He is writing a book about science.

“It’s basically the science equivalent of being a photographer to get girls to take their clothes off for you”

“It’s basically,” he chuckles, “the science equivalent of being a photographer to get girls to take their clothes off for you. It’s my way of getting a chance to talk to the scientists that I really admire. I’ve been able to go and see all these things, like the JET laboratory in Oxford and I’ve been to CERN and seen the Hadron Collider and I’m very much hoping to go to Cape Canaveral in Florida next year.”

You see, before Miller was a comic actor – “I’ve never claimed to be a comedian” – he was studying for a PhD “in, I suppose you could call it, quantum electronics. It was basically about what happens when you put electrons in very small structures.” Though he is sure that acting was the right route for him to follow, there is an eagerness and excitement in his voice which, if he wasn’t candid enough about the topic anyway, would give away the delight with which he is throwing himself back into the scientific world. In fact, his time away from it, he argues, gives him the perfect perspective from which to write a tome aimed at a populist audience. “I understand both worlds,” he says. “If I can be a translator between the two worlds, that’s great.”

Scientist, actor, writer; is there no end to Miller’s talents? Well, yes. Sadly the circus skills of his misspent youth have deserted him. “That stuff about how you never forget how to ride a bike is definitely not true of a unicycle,” he chortles. “It’s not attached to anything. I can’t ride a unicycle any more. I definitely could once. It’s probably a good thing anyway; it’s not a very good look.”

He could always use his Christmas holiday to practise, I suppose… Oh.

MA

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