Interview: Ben Miller
PUBLISHED: 15:10 06 November 2015 | UPDATED: 15:10 06 November 2015
Actor, comedian and author Ben Miller talks to Katie Jarvis about new life (baby Lana), alien life (the subject of his new book) and rural life (at home in the Cotswolds)
Ben Miller is not looking tired. He’s not looking tired in a way that many people with new babies are. “I’m too old for this, really,” he pseudo-sighs (also not looking old in a way that many people with new babies are).
He sinks into a comfy leather armchair at Cheltenham’s (posh) 131 The Promenade, where staff nod at him in a ‘we-know-you-because-you’re-a-regular’ sort of way. “She’s been amazing, actually!” he says, not sighing one bit. “She’s called Lana – and you can pick up that female energy immediately. I’ve got two boys – Sonny, who’s nine [with first wife, Belinda Stewart-Wilson], and Harrison who’s three - and she’s been a fantastic influence on the two of them already.”
Is Harrison disappointed that she’s not playing football yet?
“He’s quite keen to put her in the bin. It’s mystifying when you’re small because babies don’t do very much. But we’re more-or-less through that phase. She’s awake a bit more now and smiling. She’s 15 weeks old today, I think…”
(Yeah, right. ‘I think’, my foot. I bet he knows how many days, minutes and seconds, too.)
It’s refreshing and reassuring to see Ben Miller relaxed in an armchair in Cheltenham. Goes some way towards countering my previous vision of him relaxed in a chair - in the Caribbean (enviable), with an ice-pick embedded in his chest (less so). But more snippets about Meurtres au paradis (the French adore Death in Paradise; a friend, just returned from Paris, told me it was scheduled back-to-back from 8pm-1am on prime channel) later.
So why is he in Cheltenham and not, say, in far-less-sophisticated London where he and his wife – film producer Jessica Parker – were happily ensconced for many-a-season?
“So many reasons,” he says, taking a sip of English breakfast tea. (He has refused anything more substantial on the basis that he’s stuffed-full after a fab lunch at Cowley Manor, where the French waiter was Meurtres-mad.) (Though he does stock up on cakes in the Swallow Bakery afterwards.) “It’s always hard to put your finger on why you really love a place but we both really love it. I’m a creature of extremes. I either want to be sucking on an exhaust pipe, surrounded by pavement and concrete. Or I want to be in the middle of nowhere...”
Sucking on a cow? I quite understand. It’s not just the cows, though. It’s the Cotswold creativity; the towns; the down-to-earthness coupled with a sense of style, he explains. And the fact, we muse, that when a developer applies to build 38 flats in the local meadow, you suddenly discover your neighbour one way is a retired planning lawyer, the other one used to run the Bank of England, and the third does contract-killings.
“I know!” Ben exclaims. “I’ve never met a dull person in the Cotswolds!
“We live in the middle of nowhere, between Cirencester and Cheltenham, in a hamlet with four or five other houses. I came to Cheltenham in 2010 on a tour with Alexander Armstrong [his comedy partner, with whom he writes the BBC’s Armstrong & Miller Show]. We saw virtually every city in the British Isles.”
So, basically, an estate-agent tour, thinly disguised as a sell-out comedy extravaganza?
“A flat-hunting exercise! And there were two places – Bristol and Cheltenham – where I thought: I could live here.” Ah, yes. His great friend and colleague Xander Armstrong, who has also recently-ish moved from London to the Cotswolds.
So the obvious question to put to Ben is: Can he give me a name taken by five or more popes?
That’s not going to be Pointless.
“Pious?” he panics.
Out in round one.
The thing about Ben Miller is this. You can talk to him about comedy. (I’m one of the biggest Armstrong & Miller fans ever. If you haven’t seen their RAF Pilots sketch – “That is well unfair, blud” – then you haven’t.) You can talk to him about acting. (His Channel 4 Ballot Monkeys comedy performance, pre-election, was almost as funny as the Jeremy Corbyn debacle, he agrees.
“You can’t get funnier than a group of presumably slightly tipsy Labour MPs in the bar, chatting away and realising that there’s nobody really representing the left wing. ‘Jeremy, why don’t you have a go?’ ‘Will you vote for me?’ ‘God, no! But I’ll put your name up.’ And then he’s playing to thousands wherever he goes. The irony of it is fantastic!”)
Or, even more interestingly, you can talk to him about science. Which involves going into his background a little. His paternal grandfather was an East End boy-made-good – the founder of a highly successful chain of shops in Leyton – which meant he afford to finance his son through university: a first for the Miller family.
“My dad became a lecturer in American literature – I think mainly because he didn’t want to work in the shops! But it was science that was his hobby and his great love, and that rubbed off on me. He was very keen that I should study sciences.”
Ben didn’t disappoint. From his local comp in Nantwich, he was offered a place to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where he briefly crossed paths with Xander Armstrong, and briefly dated Rachel Weisz. The loss to physics came during his PhD – entitled Novel quantum effects in low-temperature quasi-zerodimensional mesoscopicelectron systems, in case you hadn’t guessed – when he decided a career in comedy was a more serious option.
“But I’m still engaged in science – it’s one of my favourite hobbies. I mean, all these particles we find: what are they all for? What do they do? At the moment, we have little pockets that we understand but we can’t quite link them up. It’s baroque, the universe. When you look out there, there are all of those stars; all that space – what’s all that for?”
He was at Cheltenham Literature Festival with his first book, It’s Not Rocket Science, a fun look at science’s ‘best bits’. His next, THE ALIENS ARE COMING!, is due out in February.
“Everyone’s trying to think of reasons why there are no aliens here, because there really should be, given that you find life almost everywhere on earth: the bottom of the oceans; inside rocks; up in the atmosphere.
“And if there’s complex, intelligent life on this planet, why wouldn’t there be complex, intelligent life elsewhere? Why wouldn’t it be older than us and, therefore, why wouldn’t it be here? That’s how the logic goes.”
Clearly, the research was fun because he travelled the world doing it, meeting Mazlan Othman, until recently the head of The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. And Professor Nicky Clayton, the Cambridge psychologist who has discovered that crows are at least as intelligent as chimps.
“Crows do amazing things. If you put food in a pitcher containing water, but so that they can’t reach it, they’ll put stones in to raise the water level until the food is accessible.
“But the most incredible thing I learned was from a physicist called Laurance Doyle, who got together with experts in animal communications. They analysed hours of humpback whale song [and dolphin sounds] and discovered that whales and dolphins have a sophisticated language, with sentences of at least four or five words. They can even distinguish between subject and object, in that, if you say, ‘Take the ball to the hoop’, they’ll do that; but if you say, ‘Take the hoop to the ball,’ they’ll do the opposite.”
So the idea was to look at different life-forms to see if we could extrapolate what there might be on other planets?
When it comes to aliens, the problem – and comedians have their own experience of this – is timing. We’d need a conjunction of the inexpressibly unlikely: “Whoever sends us a signal, their civilisation has to have been roughly at the same technological state that we are, but in terms of however long the light has taken to get here,” Ben explains. “So, if it takes 1,000 years, then 1,000 years ago they needed to have sent a signal in the right direction for us to pick up.
“I think within the next 10 years, we will know if there is other life – not complex, intelligent, but microbial, bacterial life; and within the next 20 years, we’ll certainly know whether the nearest, say, 10 million stars to us have got any intelligent life on them. And 10 million is roughly the number you’d need to search before you had any chance.”
Does the idea of aliens scare him?
“No - it would be absolutely fantastic. We shouldn’t worry about that anyway because we have been broadcasting TV and very strong radio signals since the 1930s. Those broadcasts are already 50 light years away from us; so anything that’s within that distance will already know that we’re there.”
(In fact, the latest worries seem based around whether or not enlightened aliens will avoid us on the grounds of sexist signals.)
And so. My final questions. Firstly, why on earth did he give up Death in Paradise, surely the best gig in the world? Ben Miller really does sigh. It’s clearly a question he’s asked by a lot of people who spend less time in the Caribbean than they’d ideally like. “It was a really, really amazing gig,” he agrees. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. You can’t get luckier than that. But people say, ‘Why did you leave?’ and I think, ‘I did do it for three years! I didn’t dip in and dip out.’”
OK. Forgiven – certainly by Kris Marshall. Secondly, did he really once hide from Paul McCartney in a toilet?
“I did – that is true. They say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes’… I’d always wanted to meet Paul McCartney. He was going round the room I was in and I suddenly realised I was going to be introduced to him any moment. I just thought, ‘I can’t handle this! This is going to be hopeless.’ My other hero is Mick Jagger and it’s the same thing. I would leave, instantly, if I ever got near him.”
So finally, most important question of all: Was he really once mistaken for Ben Stiller?
“Yeah, god, that is absolutely true. It made a nice change from being mistaken for Rob Brydon. It was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I ended up being given Ben Stiller’s hotel room. The stuff that was in there! A huge table, full of champagne, chocolates, cakes and bunches of grapes. I tell you, he’s got a nice life.”
Does he appreciate it?
“Not as much as I did when I borrowed it off him for three days. I couldn’t help wondering if he was somewhere else in Cannes, sleeping on a fold-down bed in the hotel ibis.”