Nigel Planer is showing me a video selfie he made in his Plymouth hotel bedroom – facial close-ups of Planer practising playing Rupert Murdoch for a new Comic Strip spoof, Redtop, about the phone-hacking scandal. It’s hard to tell from these exercises how effective will be the former Young Ones star’s imitation of the media tycoon – but if it’s as half as clever as his Peter Mandelson in the 2011 pastiche The Hunt for Tony Blair, then we are in for a treat.
“Because I’m not an impressionist, I try to latch on to an internal feeling”, says Planer of the way in which he nailed Mandelson’s slippery inscrutability, admitting that he was assisted by a grudging sympathy for his subjects. “Everyone thinks they know Murdoch, but if you watch as many hours of him in interviews as I have, you come to quite like him. He’s not a Spitting Image puppet – that kind of satire is very shallow, cheap and easy.”
Where The Hunt for Tony Blair imagined the New Labour Prime Minister as a fugitive in a 1950s film noir (guilty of the murders of, among others, John Smith and Robin Cook…), Redtop transposes recent events to the disco-era 1970s. Stephen Mangan reprises the role of a perma-grinning Blair, with Maxine Peake as Rebekah Brooks and Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson. The starting point for the Seventies backdrop, says writer and Comic Strip major-domo Peter Richardson, was Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein comparing the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.
“We even have our own ‘deep throat’-style whistleblower – a Sun reporter played by Johnny Vegas”, says Richardson, who based the character on Sean Hoare, the late News of the World showbiz reporter who originally broke the scandal when he spoke to The New York Times. “Also in the Seventies Tony Blair was in his rock band Ugly Rumours. In our film he’s started a new band with a funkier message, called Positive Thinking…”
“There’s something incredibly enjoyable about Stephen Mangan as Tony Blair in a massive moustache and sideboards in a ludicrous Afghan jacket and green shirt and platform boots”, says Planer. “And to have Rebekah Brooks on roller skates throughout the film… a good analogy for her water-off-a-duck’s back life, that she just skates through everything.”
“I’ve got this fabulous long red wig,” adds Peake when I catch up with her later. “It starts off with her leaving school in the north and hitchhiking her way to London and entering into Rupert Murdoch’s offices. I spoke to people who met her and everybody said, ‘Very charming… she always got what she wanted from people.’ ”
Peake, who was born in Bolton, says the only part of her research into the Warrington-raised Brooks that truly surprised her was a shared taste in music. “She was really into the band the Cramps, which I liked, and I didn’t think me and Rebekah would have anything in common,” she says. “She’s lost her accent in this, like she has in real life. It’s Cheshire anyway, and they’re a bit posh there.
“It’s very tongue in cheek; everyone gets it in the neck in a lighthearted way,” adds Peake of this, the 42nd entry in a Comic Strip Presents… canon that began on the very first night of Channel 4 in 1982 with the Enid Blyton satire Five Go Mad in Dorset. But can you be lighthearted about a scandal that included the phone-hacking of the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler? “That’s where we tread very carefully,” says Peake.“Nobody who was a victim of that is referenced in this piece.”
Instead, there is much fun made of Brooks’ various relationships – with Andy Coulson and her former husband Ross Kemp (played by Harry Enfield). A different problem for such a topical satire might be that none of it is, well, all that topical. Planer himself is sorry that Murdoch’s alleged romance with Jerry Hall hadn’t made the gossip columns when the film was being written.
“We need a sequel,” he says, before going on to explain the time lag. “We’re very quick turning them round; it’s the broadcasters who aren’t. They can sit on it for years sometimes. The initial ideas for this one are over three years old. It’s immensely frustrating.”
Richardson doesn’t agree – believing that the time lag allows space for a fuller picture to emerge, as well giving the lawyers a chance to pore over the script. “I think everyone’s still scared of News International [now known as News UK] or the people involved, which I think is quite chilling”, he says, adding that without the distance between idea and execution they wouldn’t have known about Blair’s alleged affair with Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng (played here by Eleanor Matsuura).
“We made good use of a Vanity Fair article which was about 30 pages of comings and goings, including with Murdoch ending up in casualty with her beating him up.”
Meanwhile the real Rebekah Brooks was acquitted in 2014 of involvement in phone hacking at News International, the Old Bailey jury accepting that as the newspaper’s head she was more or less incompetent. It’s the line that Richardson takes with his fictionalised Rebekah. “She’s a poor, innocent northern girl who comes down and accidentally becomes chief executive of News International,” he says, “with people around her doing horrible things she doesn’t know about.”
Richardson originally co-created the Comic Strip to showcase his double act with Planer, which began in the late 1970s. “Peter’s a pretty single-minded individual,” says Planer when I ask him to dissect their partnership. “He doesn’t – unlike the rest of us – take jobs somewhere else. And I’m the opposite: I can duck and dive… I’ve worked in all sorts of styles.”
Indeed, Planer’s career has been extraordinarily diverse, taking in West End musicals, a Spinal Tap-style spoof rock band (Bad News, the subject of a Comic Strip spin-off) as well as films and TV dramas and comedies (most recently as Matt Le Blanc’s lawyer in Episodes). He has also written books, plays and a slim volume of poetry. But he remains famous for two roles – Neil the lugubrious hippy in the seminal 1980s sitcom The Young Ones, and a precious actor, Nicholas Craig, in a series of spoof masterclasses. “Neil and Nicholas Craig come from my own self,” he says. “They’re not like acting jobs. For years I used to be like Neil; then after Neil I wasn’t.”
Planer and Richardson both cite The Strike, the 1988 spoof on the miners’ strike, imaging Al Pacino in the role of Arthur Scargill, as one of their favourite Comic Strip films; while Planer says he’d like to make a sequel to a couple of more recent offerings, Four Men in a Car (1998) and Four Men in a Plane (2000), road movie comedies which starred Richardson, Planer and Planer’s former Young Ones co-stars Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. It would, he says, be a tribute to Mayall, who died suddenly in 2014.
“It would be an Ortonesque piece where the coffin goes missing,” says Planer. “We could call it Three Men and a Funeral, which I think would be funny – and I think Rik would have liked it. But you can always say that when someone’s died…”