“Satire is in the British DNA”: Jon Culshaw Photo: Penguin Random House
I'm 10 minutes into the channel's new drama Partygate Channel 4 and I feel completely confused. The 20-second trailer was so wine-filled and raucous that I decided I was going to watch a political comedy in the bawdy vein of The Windsors.
I actually thought it was quite a lot of drama. I'm asking you to find some humor in the horror of the pandemic, but given that Boris Johnson will be played by the consummate impressionist Jon Culshaw, I was naively expecting a repeat of his fabulous “Fwa! Phew!” appearances from Radio 4's Death Ringers
Instead, I was left transfixed by a powerful docudrama that combines real and fictional characters, heart-wrenching interviews with grieving members of the public and revealing extracts from contemporary news footage .
“I thought it was intriguing. a way to take all the evidence from Sue Gray's report and everything else that was in the record and turn it into something accessible,” Culshaw says. “It shows the harsh reality of breaking the rules, and it was also really interesting to play Boris Johnson in a more naturalistic way for the first time.”
Culshaw, 55, physically inhabits the 59-year-old politician; studied hand gestures, stoop. But it was filmed from afar, obliquely, as if under surveillance. Surprisingly, he doesn't caricature him at all.
No caricature: Culshaw as Boris Johnson in Channel 4' Partygate drama Photo: Channel 4/Channel 4 “I'm sure Boris is a very affable guy,” adds Lancashire-born Culshaw with an unexpected generosity of spirit; comedians and actors (at least those who want to get work) these days are almost contractually required to be left-handed.
“You can see how his manner inspires people, who find him positive and charismatic. It's fine if you're having a pint in the pub, but it's another thing entirely to resort to bluster and random Latin phrases when you're Prime Minister during a national crisis.”
Partygate is owned by the makers of BAFTA-winning dramas, “Killed by My Duty” and “Killed by My Father”. The research is thorough and the casting (which includes Ophelia Lovibond and W1A's Hugh Skinner) is impeccable.
Watching after-hours drinks (at least 15 parties) descend into an orgy of cocaine, karaoke and lust seems like a gross exaggeration until the sober facts and figures from the Gray Report appear on screen. All this is documented. All this stings. A reminder that, at its best, political satire has teeth.
“Satire is in the British DNA,” muses Culshaw, whose extraordinary gift for mimicry made him a mainstay at Spitting Image back in the 1990s and has haunted him ever since. “It goes back to the 18th century and Hogarth. There is a brazen formality in the way he blows ego bubbles and ridicules those in power.
“The recent loss of dear Mike Yarwood was a reminder of how politicians have actually adopted the catchphrases he coined for them. Denis Healy never uttered the words “silly Billy” in his life, but they became so popular that 20 million of us decided to watch them every Saturday night in the 1970s that he decided to start using the phrase himself.”
Innocent times. Relatively speaking. Ten years later, John Major has never forgiven Spitting Image for portraying him as a grey-skinned, boring bureaucrat. Tiny David Steele, his puppet dwarfed by Big David Owen, always insisted he got the joke, but his wife Judy said in her tell-all 2012 biography Tales from the Tap that the tiny lampoon ended Steele's political career.
Culshaw has no right to complain that our politicians these days are too polite to be criticized. And at the same time, he does not intend to retire his Boris “fwa-fwa” in the near future.
“I suspect it will remain in the public consciousness for a very long time, and as long as it is relevant, I will continue to film it. David Cameron was an indifferent man, albeit with a slippery streak of snobbery that curdled when he spoke, but – to the impressionists – Boris was a kind of quantitative easing. He may be gone, but he is not forgotten, and the other characters are still here; Keir Starmer's strange timidity: he's too busy wrestling with cardboard boxes to grasp the important points.”
He segues into Jacob Rees-Mogg and I almost cry with laughter: “I'm erudite, electable, pampered and cheerful . With Woody Allen glasses and Adolf Hitler hair.” I'm begging him for more – soft-spoken Culshaw is definitely not one of those clumsy imitators who “voice” in the course of normal conversation.
In quick succession, his shifting features morph into Gordon Brown, William Hague, John Lydon (head tilted, looking into the camera with glowing honesty) and Richard Branson's teeth-enhancing ones.
Jon Culshaw voices the perfect John Major puppet. Photo: ITV/Shutterstock
Culshaw plays both Lydon and Branson in the upcoming drama about the Sex Pistols' controversial 1977 album Never Mind the B——s, due out later this year. It is a continuation of many well-received straight acting roles; David Bowie in a radio show about the last weeks before dying from cancer. Les Dawson on stage, Hughie Green at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“I'm increasingly attracted to projects where I play characters with a longer narrative,” he says. “It's about gradually revealing nuggets of truth rather than rushing for a quick punchline.”
Having lived in London for 26 years, Culshaw is now mainly based in his home town of Ormskirk, Lancashire. He lives in a Victorian house surrounded by farmland, which he describes as “a great place to study lines” and also a place to pursue his passion for astronomy. He appeared in the 700th episode of The Sky at Night, along with physicist Brian Cox and Queen guitarist Brian May, who is an astrophysicist.
“I'm going to New Mexico next month for the annular eclipse on October 14,” he says, beaming with anticipation. This eclipse is also known as the ring of fire because when the Moon passes in front of the Sun, it does not block it completely, but leaves a thin outer edge of light. “Coincidentally, the best location is in Roswell. Or is this?” We have to hope he doesn't get abducted by aliens, not least because he has a busy schedule of audiobooks, voice acting and the next Dead Ringers in the works. His personal life (he's currently single) needs a reboot, too.
“I never got married, although that was not my intention,” he says softly. “I was always perfectly happy with my company; I always remained friends with all the women I dated. Alone recently compared me to Doctor Who [he notes Tom Baker]; I've been here for two or three years and then it's time for me and them to move on, and everyone is quite happy with that.
“I have a feeling that I'll grow up. and settle down in five to ten years; I'm just a little behind.”
As for Partygate, I really hope the jubilant fun of the trailer will attract (fool) more viewers. “No one is going to sit and read Sue Gray's report,” says Culshaw. “But we must remember that these things happened. I also hope that Partygate will serve as a reminder to those in power that such swaggering arrogance and privilege are unacceptable in public life.”
Partygate will be on Channel 4 on October 3 at 9.30pm.