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THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION
Next week sees the launch of Series Two of House of Fools – the brilliantly surreal sitcom from the minds of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.
To celebrate its return, TVO sat down with the main cast during the filming of Series Two to discuss the show. Yesterday, we spoke to Dan Skinner, Daniel Simonsen and Ellie White. The day before saw our chat with Vic & Bob themselves unleashed. Today, we bring you our catch-up with Bob’s regular house guests, Matt Berry and Morgana Robinson.
It is fair to say that, to readers of these pages at least, Matt Berry needs no introduction. When The Velvet Onion began five years ago, he was a much loved figurehead of alternative comedy, making waves on the music scene with a succession of tours, and was one of the first people to actively encourage and support the development of TVO. He’s been good to us, over the years, and we’ve been delighted to continue to support him as his star has risen. Thanks to the runaway success of Toast of London, huge critical acclaim for his Kill the Wolf album, and numerous other projects Berry is edging closer and closer to the mainstream. Matt may not yet be a household name, but he’s certainly more beloved than ever, and his role as randy house visitor Beef in House of Fools has introduced his charms to a whole new audience.
Today, he greets TVO fondly, and in an moment part made of showmanship, part of his natural instincts as a gentlemen, he introduces us in style to his fellow interviewee with a hand flourish, a side step and a powerful rendering of her name: Morgana. The name may not be familiar to you just yet, particularly for our international readers. But make no mistake about it: this is one formidable comic talent, whose rise to meteoric stardom is surely just around the corner.
Born in Australia and raised in Britain,international awareness of Morgana Robinson at the moment is mostly down to her half-sister being none rock star Brody Dalle, formerly of The Distillers. Dalle’s husband also happens to be Josh Homme – frontman for Queens of the Stone Age and occasional Matt Berry collaborator. Following initial appearances in mainstream comedy fair like The Green Green Grass and My Family, in 2010 Robinson was given her own five-part sketch show on Channel 4: The Morgana Show.
A delightfully bonkers showcase for this unique comic mind, the show also featured Kill List star Neil Maskell and one of today’s guest stars, Tom Davis, in his own big break. While the show did not return for a second run, a Comic Strip Presents appearance and a prominent BBC iPlayer short have bolstered Robinson’s reputation, and her recent work has included a guest slot on Toast of London and her own impressions show: Very Important People.
As you read this, she’ll also appearing as a recurring segment host on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, spoofing the likes of YouTube bloggers and Russell Brand. It may be early days for her, but it’s clear that she’s going to go far, and much like most of the cast, she’s overjoyed that – as camera-wielding nymphomaniac neighbour turned bistro owner Julie – Reeves & Mortimer are keen to give her a platform.
“They’re amazing like that,” she tells us as we sit down. Matt Berry agrees.
“They can spot good stuff,” he states, before questioning himself. “That’s not for us to say, is it?”
“They put money on good horses,” Morgana adds. “They do love to channel new talent up. I’m extremely grateful for that, you know.” Matt agrees. “Oh, whatever!” she mocks in return.
“No, I bloody am!” he says with genuine passion. “Of course I am.”
“You’ve been around for donkeys years, haven’t you?” Morgana asks him, at which point TVO reminds her that Matt is, according to the British Comedy Awards 2014, a ‘breakthrough artist’. Matt laughs.
“Nine years…” he shakes his head. “Ten years. Breakthrough. A breakthrough ten years.”
And what a ten years that has been, as anyone who follows his career, or reads TVO, for that matter, as the two are so intertwined, can attest. Following his real breakthrough in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matt has gone on to star in The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd. He also created legendary one-off AD/BC: A Rock Opera, internationally renowed favourite Snuffbox and the multi-award winning Toast of London – the latter set to return for a third series in 2015. That fact that is still top secret as we meet, yet impossible for Matt not to be understandably keen to tell us in strictest confidence. He’s also appeared in productions as varied as The Peter Serafinowicz Show, Duncan Jones’ Moon, Portlandia and even Spongebob Squarepants, all whilst carving out a career as an incredible multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter.
Returning to House of Fools for Matt, who is seemingly in demand constantly at present, is in part based on the joy of working with Reeves and Mortimer, but also the positive response to the first series.
“We hit the ground running last year,” he explains. “I don’t think this year has changed much at all. There’s no real difference, it’s a continuation of what we started.”
“I’ve got a bistro!” interjects Morgana. “And a few more lines.”
“The bistro works out,” Matt suggests, “because it’s sort of a community centre. You can do storylines that aren’t in someone’s house. It’s like a town hall, or something.”
“Mmmm,” Morgana nods. “It’s like our Central Perk.”
The Friends comparison is an interesting one, TVO notes, particularly as it feels a world away from what Vic & Bob are doing with House of Fools. For starters, Friends and most other US sitcoms would be written by a huge team of staff writers, with very little room for cast additions to the scripts. Whilst Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) and Bob Mortimer were keen to stress the importance of getting it all on the page before shooting for practical reasons, Dan Skinner spoke of how flexible they were with developing comedic voices within their work, and both Ellie White and Daniel Simonsen revealed they had rewritten their scene together with Bob ten minutes before the afternoon record had started. Clearly, there’s scope for a lot more flexibility when you’ve got a cast of comedy writers and performers, rather than regular actors.
“Yeah, they’re quite cool like that,” Morgana notes. “They’re open to suggestions. If they like a joke, they’ll go: ‘Oh, put that in!’ It’s not exactly sign language but it works.”
Matt agrees. “They’re very generous. They know what’s going to work, and you know what’s going to work, and what wouldn’t be right for this. There’s nothing subtle. There’s nothing underplayed. That’s not what they do.”
Despite the occasional pre-filmed flight of fancy, there’s no denying the lack of subtlety and the vibrant cast would make a potential House of Fools stage show a real delight. As Bob’s already mentioned the possibility in passing, TVO decides to get Matt & Morgana’s feedback on the idea.
“Yeah!” Morgana exclaims, her eyes lighting up at the prospect. “I’d love it!”
“But not like tonight,” Matt notes, referring to the over-running, mistake-laden first run of the day. “We didn’t get the fucking thing finished. That wouldn’t be great live!” He bursts out laughing. “It’d have to be rehearsed, put it that way!”
Aware today’s problematic filming, plagued by the lack of a camera rehearsal due to the complexity of the pre-shoot, had been a worry for the whole cast, TVO can’t help but calmly note that the first shoot of the day was a little ‘fluffy’. “We all were tonight,” Matt suggests, “cos we didn’t get to finish it.”
Perhaps worried he may be appearing negative, he adds: “But it’s not always like that. Don’t get the wrong impression about it. The last one was fucking perfection.”
Morgana nods. “It was pretty perfect,” she reasons. “It’s normally a well-oiled machine. I’d love to take it out on the road.”
“It could totally work in the Wyndham,” suggests Matt, a sprinkling of Steven Toast bubbling to the surface before fading away once more. “Oh, I don’t know,” he adds. “Whatever they want to do, I’m up for it.”
“We just let them do whatever they want,” Morgana states, before drifting off. “I’m sure none of it will make sense.”
Sadly due to the over-run on filming, our time with the delightful duo is running out. Poor Matt and Morgana have mere minutes left to get some food and a short break before going back into the studio for another record session. Ever the caring type, TVO elects to cut our pre-arranged interview slot short by a few minutes, so that the pair can talk freely, and make it to the canteen before they head back to work. However, there’s still just enough time for a quick round of our brilliant new game: Rent, Mortgage, Evict – which we have in no way pilfered from the not at all similar game, Snog Marry Avoid. To avoid awkward conversations, given we know the cast are clearly enamoured with one another, we ask Matt and Morgana, as their characters, who would they chose to live with, buy a house with, and ask to leave the premises. Straight away, Matt’s in with a surprisingly blunt answer.
“I’d kick ‘em all out,” he states, firmly, before worrying that sounded worse than it was intended to.
“Not as people!” he adds. “I’d kick all the characters out. But I think they’d all answer like that, and just want a house of their own.”
“I’ve no idea,” admits Morgana. “I’d live with all of them. It’s like a jungle out there. They all work very well together, like a very strange family. I couldn’t throw them all out, could you?”
“Probably no, no,” Matt considers. “She’s right. They’re all real fuckwits on their own. They can’t do anything.”
“You’d be bored shitless with just one of them,” Morgana concludes. “It’s a bit like a circus.”
And with that, they must be on their way once more. T-minus 15-minutes until the second record begins, and like the rest of the circus, Matt and Morgana have to go and put on a damn good show. But first tea and cake. There’s always time for cake before the madness begins once more.
House of Fools returns on Monday 16th February at 10pm on BBC2. The first series is available on dvd from 23rd February.
The following words are a bit of a long-winded ramble about the death of one of my heroes this weekend. It’s taken a lot out of me to just get my thoughts into this level of cohesion, so don’t expect anything succinct, or ‘publishable’ – these are just a method of getting my feelings out there, writing whatever came naturally. In time, I think it’s better if I treat this situation this way, rather than try to make a quick-fix, sound-byte approved capsule of faux grief and holier than thou critical assumptions. One of my greatest inspirations has died suddenly, and I think I needed to deal with that somehow. Hope it helps some of you too.
Like much of the western world, I’ve been thinking a lot aboutPhilip Seymour Hoffman these past couple of days. In fairness, I thought about him a lot before these past couple of days too: my favourite actor never fell into the social media trap so there was no way of finding out what he was up to via Tweets – you had to google him occasionally and see what came up. Less than a week ago, I was catching up on the various Sundance interviews around God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man, the two forthcoming films which positioned him centre stage as their unique selling point that would no doubt come and go in the cinemas like so many of his critically acclaimed, art-house movies do. Or, rather, did, because he’s been taken from this world so suddenly.
My initial reaction was one of shock. Part of what had appealed to me about him was that he was an atypical Hollywood actor – the kind who would shun the limelight and shrug off acclaim. He was, he insisted, just doing his job, and when he wasn’t doing that job, he kept himself to himself and his beloved family.
Yet as that family prepares for their beloved one to be dragged through the tabloid muck for the first (and in an oddly comforting note, last) time, the thought that he was so susceptible to such a foolish downfall is as infuriating as it is heartbreaking. Here was a man who would chose his roles wisely, taking the parts which allowed him to lose himself within the characters on the page. A film takes the talents of so many individuals to reach an audience, and somehow he managed to seem like the most essential element, yet the first one likely to say that he wasn’t remotely essential all at once.
Despite having been aware of his career for many years, having seen various performances big and small, it was a role which has been perhaps overlooked in the years since its release that made me a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Friends had caught his turn as a brash radio DJ known only as The Count in the underrated Richard Curtis Brit-com The Boat That Rocked, and given my background, and ‘if-you-squint-a-bit’ physical resemblance, decided he was essentially me in twenty years. Not saying a word of this to me until afterwards, they introduced me to the film, to see what I would make of it, and of him.
The Count,like all the characters in the film, was somewhat of a one-note character on the page: he existed to further the sitcom-esque mini-plots and push the lead narrative to its dramatic finale, yet in the hands of a master actor like Hoffman, he became so much more. Though he didn’t even have a proper name, it was hard not to fall in love with his ethos. All he wanted was to spread the joy of good music to the world, yet underneath it all, he was hiding from his own mortality and lack of security.
When it looks like the days of pirate radio could be coming to an end, he tells another character that these were the best days of their lives, and fills every single syllable with a new emotional resonance so you can feel his heart breaking. Though the film has a deliberately upbeat ending, the emotional impact of The Count’s actions after this scene stuck in my mind afterwards, possibly more than Richard Curtis ever thought they would. I was hooked.
Going back and re-discovering Philip Seymour Hoffman’s back catalogue in the years since has been an absolute pleasure. There were the well-sung classics, some of which I already adored – The Big Lebowski, for example, or Capote. There were supporting roles which stole the show, like that of timid Scotty in the flashy Boogie Nights. And there were headline performances which focused the dramatic weight of the film on Hoffman’s shoulders, like thriller Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead– an uncomfortable film to watch that, given his character’s drug addiction in the narrative, will be even more uncomfortable in retrospect.
And then there were the arthouse films. The kind which had smaller scale narratives, but were treated with the utmost respect by all concerned. As I grew older and got increasingly tired of mainstream Hollywood grot, I took solace in these kinds of movie, and the differing view on American life they offered. It wasn’t all glitz and glamour, it was every bit as drab as real life can be over on this side of the Pond, and while A-List blockbusters filled their films with thinly-sketched out personas upon which to hang a Joss Whedon esque quip, these films had ordinary people trying –and often failing – to do the right thing.
Of these,two in particular stood out for me. Tamara Jenkin’s 2007 film The Savages was a double-hander for Hoffman and Laura Linney, who played a pair of barely functional siblings forced to take care of their estranged father in the final months of his life. As they struggle to stay afloat, their father’s dementia finds them questioning every aspect of themselves, wondering where they went wrong, and both Hoffman and Linney are more than up to the task of making two incredibly selfish people immensely likeable, for all their flaws.
At the other end of the spectrum, was a little known 2009 Claymation, made in Australia by writer/director Adam Elliot. Mary And Max focuses on two unlikely pen pals hundreds of miles and oceans of experience apart… one a young Australian girl with no friends or any real love in her world, the other an equally lonely 44-year old morbidly obese Jewish man in New York City with Asperger syndrome and chronic depression. Over a twenty year period, a surprise friendship between two distant souls develops, which becomes both a comfort and a frustration in their increasingly difficult lives.
The Savages and Mary And Max demonstrated the type of project at which Hoffman perhaps most excelled, and even if they made relatively little money at the box-office, they found their audiences who took them to heart and will love them forever more. And all the while, Hoffman continued to appear in massively successful blockbuster movies like Mission Impossible III, Charlie Wilson’s War and most recently, The Hunger Games:Catching Fire.
For me, Hoffman was always at his best in those smaller pictures, which isn’t to say he wasn’t a gifted movie star who could vastly improve any picture he was in. He is surely unique in Hollywood for having so few critical disasters in his career, with only Along Came Polly garnering less than favourable reviews since he became a headline name in his own right.
Whilst the critics quite rightly fawned over his performances in Moneyball and The Master in recent years, they also ignored the beautiful Jack Goes Boating (which Hoffman also directed), and the heartbreaking A Late Quartet, which reunited him with his Synecdoche New York co-star Catherine Keener. It was these kind of films I looked forward to most, even as I was convinced to go and see The Hunger Games sequel purely because of his involvement. Going back further into his catalogue as I always planned to do (I currently own around half of his major film roles, with a lack of money being the only reason I haven’t just bought every last one in bulk), will be a delight I’ll savour for a while yet, because I know he’s almost uniformly been a stamp of quality on a film for many, many years.
Which leads us back to the present day, waiting impatiently to see his new films andHappyish – the proposed television series he had recently made a pilot of with Hedwig And The Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell. The latter will sadly, never be. Those new films will be his last. This incredible actor’s last performance is as a supporting player in tween fantasy quadrilogy The Hunger Games, which he had seven days’ work left to complete before being set to begin directing his second feature.
And he’s gone. And it saddens me, and angers me,and confuses me in equal measure. I’d seen his recent interviews at Sundance, and thought he looked tired, and somewhat bored of the asinine questioning thrown his way. This seemed somewhat unusual, but I thought nothing of it. Everyone has an off day. In retrospect, it’s probably easy to see a man on the edge, in much the same way some ridiculous critics have been claiming they could read the signs of his destruction coming up in his recent performances (here’s a clue: they couldn’t,or they’d have said so).
They say only the good die young, but right now for all his altruistic tendencies and the love poured upon his memory by the acting community, it’s hard for rational minds to understand how such a good man could make such a selfish decision with three young children to support. We’ll probably never know what inner torment led to his sudden and untimely demise, or what turned him back to the drugs he left behind so many years ago, but as someone who has battled with the black dog himself, I feel as if a man I admired so greatly as an artist and a human being has shown that all the true greats really are as messed up as the rest of us.
If I’m honest, I did consider him a true hero of mine… up there with Chris Morris and Jim Henson, with David Bowie, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury – true pioneers who do/did things their way and made a lasting impression on the world in the process. I was gutted I couldn’t get to see him on Broadway in Death of a Salesman, and even more annoyed I missed his BAFTA tribute in London a few years ago because I wasn’t a BFI member. Much like Mercury, or Michael Jackson, those angel wings I subconsciously put upon Philip Seymour Hoffman have been torn by his actions, though in doing so, my respect for him as an artist and as a human being may, in time, increase. I’ve understood how it feels to be so low despite all the good things in your life, and the anger at his passing has turned to regret. I just feel so utterly sorry for him. I wish someone had busted him, sent him off to rehab and/or jail and sorted his problems out so he could have rebuilt his life, but it was not to be. Gone too soon, indeed.
What we’re left with is what he wanted to leave us all with in the first place – his art. I expect his name to be completely trashed by the tabloids in the weeks and months to come, but when the dust settles, it will be his life’s work that stands out – even if so much of the tragedy of the characters he often portrayed will now be tinged with an extra layer of sadness at the tragedy of the wonderful, but tortured man behind them.
To Philip Seymour Hoffman, then. You will be missed, but never forgotten.