David Mitchell is the often exasperated, slightly awkward but always funny face and voice of radio and tv panel and sketch shows. Together with his fellow Cambridge Footlights alumni, he tops today’s generation of British comedic talent. Al Gordon meets him.
Mitchell’s idiosyncratic personality carries panel shows with ease; he regularly takes a seat on QI and Have I Got News for You?, even claiming lead spot as team captain in Would I Lie To You? The literary comedian has also captured Fleet Street with his Observer/Guardian columns, and he has two books already under his belt. But Mitchell wouldn’t be Mitchell without something to gripe about, and his latest tome, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, digs into his column archives to muse on the complexities and conundrums of modern life.
With the General Election on the horizon, it couldn’t be more apposite. From Mitchell’s perspective, we are a nation plagued with irks: taxes, rampant politicians and the conventions of phone etiquette, to name but a few. Most of us feel all we can do is grumble about our current state of affairs – but what if we had the means to make a change? If Mitchell were Prime Minister for the day, he’d take a stand, he says – though being top of the food chain is hardly appealing.
“I absolutely want to be carping away from the side lines, rather than making the decisions,” protests Mitchell. “One of the reasons I voted Liberal Democrat is because I thought the last thing that will happen is I’ll be implicated in what the government does… that’d be a nightmare.” Oh.
But for a man who insists that, “if I was Prime Minister for the day, anything I did would immediately be reversed by the person who was Prime Minister for the next day,” he’s certainly got some big ideas. After all, Joe Public doesn’t often side with MPs when it comes to salary wars.
“The first thing I would do is quadruple MPs salaries, and that wouldn’t just be so I could earn that money in that day – it would be because I think, it’s such a horrible profession, you get so badly despised by everyone, that we need to do something to make it more attractive or the calibre of person going into it is just going to continue to decline,” he explains. “You know, we’ve got a capitalist system, that’s how to express that we value something, and at the moment we don’t express that we value our politicians as highly as we should. We’re saying these are important people and we’re going to make them feel important with money.”
If we don’t like that system? Then we might as well turn communist, baits Mitchell. “I’d be very happy with that, although it usually turns into a tyranny – but assuming that a day is too short a time to turn the country communist, I’d say pay MPs a lot more.”
Mitchell’s (semi-serious) ideas may not always fit with those of the majority, but then he’s always been his own man, although he has confessed to concealing his early ambitions. “When I was at school I either wanted to be a comedian-stroke-actor or prime minister. But I didn't admit that to other people, I said I wanted to be a barrister and that made my parents very happy. I didn't admit I wanted to be a comedian until I came to university, met a lot of other people who wanted to be comedians, and realised it was an okay thing to say.” It was at Cambridge that he met Robert Webb, with whom he later wrote and starred in That Mitchell and Webb Sound, followed by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
Having spent his university years immersed in a plethora of sketches and plays, when he graduated he headed to London to stake his acting claim. “We were doing an adaptation of The Miser at The Etcetera Theatre, above the Oxford Arms,” he says, thinking back to the start of his career. “We were there for a month and a half and I happily remember the two or three occasions when no one turned up and we spent the evening in the pub instead. That was certainly something that by the end of the run I had come to hope for…”
While Mitchell professes that he “wasn’t a very good student” and spent most of his time circling the stage instead, he allows that studying History at Cambridge must add a certain something to his brand of comedic musings. Possibly his political ones too.
“I tend to see things as part of a broader historical direction of travel, either good or bad. So most of the things I try and write jokes about – whether it’s sketches or on panel shows – tend to be about things that now you think are absurd, or dangerous, or the laughable kind of direction that things are going in, so I suppose that’s seeing it in a historical context.”
Mitchell is far more than a talking head, and his Soap Box antics have amused audiences for years. But with a book that professes ‘thinking about it only makes things worse’, and his occupation as a comic, it begs the question: should we take him seriously?