For Primeval‘s second year, Ben Miller’s James Lester was paired with Karl Theobald’s Oliver Leek, whose agenda proved eventually to be anything but friendly. Speaking at the press conference to launch the season in January 2008, the two gave an interesting insight into the comparisons between working on comedy and drama…
Ben, there seems to be a lot of you about at the moment, with the sketch show with Alexander Armstrong on the BBC, and Moving Wallpaper [in which Miller played a TV producer] and Primeval on ITV…
Ben Miller: It’s like buses – these things all come along at once. The thing is these shows were made at different times and it’s just a coincidence. We shot our sketch show so long ago and it didn’t come out until the autumn – it was just seven or eight months sitting on the shelf and then these two things came out at once. It’s not that I’ve got shares in ITV!
The sketch show was delivered last March. That was a long delay, and these things are coming out pretty soon. I haven’t worked since Primeval 2 finished in September, and I probably won’t be working again until July. And then all those things will come out at once.
Do you find it difficult going from all the different characters on the sketch show to the more serious character of Lester?
Ben Miller: I really like doing both. I love doing dramatic acting and comic acting. It’s great when you’ve been doing a lot of comedy to be doing a bit of drama. It’s very closely related, but there’s something about a drama. In comedy, you can stand at a slight distance from the character that you’re playing: you’re playing the character and yourself somehow. In a drama, you’ve got to get completely lost in that one character, and if you see glimpses of the actor as well, it looks like bad acting.
In our sketch show, we both play women in the vegetarian restaurant. Part of the fun of it is we’re clearly not women in a vegetarian restaurant. In this, you would hope.. the suit helps, the costume helps. It’s why actors get so obsessive, I think, about props and costumes. Anything that helps you believe the character.
Karl Theobald: I think one informs the other. I think it’s always good to do some straight drama and then bring that into some comedy. If you play the comedy straight, there’s some nice humour going on, and if you play the drama with a slight comic twist, it makes it more interesting.
Eric Morecambe told André Previn that it was important that as the performers, they were the only ones who don’t know that it’s funny…
Ben Miller: I think it’s interesting he said that to André Previn. I think he did because he would be very worried that André Previn would play the scene like a comedian rather than like an actor. The truth of it is if you are a comedian in a scene, you don’t just play it. You’re also playing with the audience at the same time. What Eric Morecambe is doing in that scene is playing the scene of being conducted by André Previn, but he’s also playing, ‘I am Eric Morecambe in a sketch with André Previn’ – there’s a whole load of other things going on. He would be nervous that André Previn wouldn’t be a great comic actor. In that case, it’s better to just batten down the hatches and play it straight, because you can’t ever go wrong with that.
Karl Theobald: The same in comedy. If you’re worried about a joke, just play it straight.
Do you get jealous that you’re the guys in the suits in the office while the other characters are off chasing dinosaurs?
Karl Theobald: After watching episode one just now, yes! I wanted to be on a motorbike shooting things.
Ben Miller: I do get to fire a machine gun! For once, Lester raids the armoury and gets a submachine gun, pumps some creature full of lead: it’s fantastic. I do get to do some action stuff in this one.
Karl please describe your character
Karl Theobald: I’m Debbie McGee to Ben’s Paul Daniels!
Ben Miller: That’s right in almost every respect. Costume, relationship…
Karl Theobald: We’re Cannon and Ball meets Jurassic Park. It’s not like either of us is the straight man, even though you’re the higher status.
Ben Miller: It’s a very interesting dynamic. What I like about it is that Leek essentially is not all that he seems. The nature of that relationship does change. A lot of fun is had in the series. The thing that I love about their relationship at the beginning is that Lester is clearly irritated by him, and whatever I say as a put down, Leek just seems to take as some kind of compliment. It’s the most frustrating thing, because I can never seen to properly put him down.
Karl Theobald: You don’t know if he’s doing it innocently or just trying to appease Lester.
How are you playing it?
Karl Theobald: I have no idea! For me, I’m playing it with a protection. I don’t think that anyone would put up with the way Lester treats him, unless they were horribly ambitious, which maybe he is, or stupid, which he can’t be.
Ben, what did you think of the show when you were first approached?
Ben Miller: I thought it was great. When I read the script, I thought, “This is fantastic. This dinosaur is brilliant, it’s really fantastic…” then I thought, “Hang on, how are they going to do dinosaurs? Dinosaurs don’t exist! Where are they going to get them from? It’s obviously CGI – how good is the CGI going to be?” That was the question.
When we did the first series, all of us felt slightly intrepid about it. We’d be in the middle of a scene, fighting a Gorgonopsid, and turning to one other and saying, “If this thing looks rubbish, we are going to look like absolute idiots!” It was all about the creatures. But Framestore did such an amazing job. It looks feature film quality. The way they do the light, it’s very cleverly done.
Karl Theobald: Someone was saying that it has that broad American feel about it: that’s to do with locations. They’re really good at finding cinematic scope that they can film
Ben Miller: We did shoot in the most amazing places – Battersea Power Station, Canary Wharf.
Are you a sci-fi fan?
Karl Theobald: I’m not entirely, but I loved King Kong and Jurassic Park. I think they’re great movies, and part of the reason for that is they’re great stories. The actors tell those stories really well. All the cast from the first series do it really well. That’s another thing: it can look great, but if the actors aren’t believable, if they’re not reacting believably to the situation, it disrupts it as well. You become involved in the characters’ stories as well.
Are you worried about them creating a CGI Ben Miller?
Ben Miller: I wouldn’t have to get up in the morning – if I could get some sort of licensing agreement!
Are they doing an action figure of you?
Ben Miller: I’ve just heard today that I’ve got a reprieve and they are making a model of me – I had been phoned personally by the producers to be told “a little bit of bad news”. I was gutted that I wasn’t going to have a model, but it turns out at the last moment that I am going to have one and I’m going to be twinned with the Future Predator. Every figure comes with their monster.
Why the reprieve?
Ben Miller: I’d like to think that the distributors put up a stink and said, “Are you mad? You’ve got to have a Ben Miller action figure or we’ll go bankrupt!”
How did they make it?
Ben Miller: You literally stand in the pose of the model. They have what looks like some kind of witchcraft drawn on the floor with lots of bisecting angles and you stand on this thing and rotate through 30′ until you’ve gone full circle, and they take lots of photos. They do an equivalent of motion capture, but just still.
But apparently all that those photos do is serve as reference for some bloke who gets a bit of plasticene and a penknife and whittles it down looking at the photos. It has a pretence of the technological about it!
Do you think children playing with them will kill your model?
Ben Miller: I’ll be the one left at the bottom of the sandpit, kicked around, hanging from the banisters.. Although I was told by one of the distributors that my maquette came into the office at the same time as Kylie’s and they got up to… By proxy, I’ve had sex with Kylie Minogue in maquette form!