I am 10 minutes into Channel 4’s new drama Partygate film and I am feeling thoroughly bamboozled. The 20-second trailer was so wine-fuelled and raucous that I assumed I would be watching a near-the-knuckle political comedy in the scurrilous vein of The Windsors.
I did think it was a pretty big ask to find any humour in the horror of the pandemic, but given consummate impressionist Jon Culshaw would be playing Boris Johnson, I naively expected a reprise of his fabulous “Fwah! Fwah!” routines from Radio 4’s Dead Ringers.
Instead I found myself sucker-punched by a powerful docu-drama that combines real and fictional characters, harrowing interviews with grieving members of the public and damning excerpts from contemporary news footage.
“I thought it was an intriguing way to take all the evidence of the Sue Gray report and everything else that was on the record and make it into something accessible,” says Culshaw. “It shows the stark reality of rule-breaking and it was also really interesting to play Boris Johnson in a more naturalistic way for the first time.”
Culshaw, 55, inhabits the 59-year-old politician physically; the studied arm gestures, the stoop. But he is filmed at a distance, obliquely, as though under surveillance. Surprisingly, he doesn’t caricature him at all.
“I am sure Boris is a thoroughly affable chap,” adds Lancashire-born Culshaw, with unexpected generosity of spirit; comedians and actors (at least those who want to get work) being almost contractually obliged to be Leftie these days.
“You can see how his manner lifts people, who find him positive and charismatic. That’s fine if you’re having a pint in the pub but resorting to bluster and random Latin phrases is a very different matter when you are prime minister at a time of national crisis.”
Partygate comes from the makers of the Bafta-winning dramas Killed By My Debt, and Murdered By My Father. The research is meticulous and the casting (which includes W1A’s Ophelia Lovibond and Hugh Skinner) spot-on.
As we watch the after-hours drinks (no fewer than 15 parties) descend into bacchanals of cocaine, karaoke and carnality, it looks like gross exaggeration until sober facts and figures from Gray’s report appear on screen. All of it is documented. All of it is biting. A reminder that, at its best, political satire has teeth.
“Satire is laid down in the British DNA,” reflects Culshaw whose extraordinary gift for mimicry made him a mainstay on Spitting Image back in 1990s and has kept him busy ever since. “It goes right back to the 18th century and Hogarth. There’s an impudent formality to the way it pricks the bubbles of the self-important and mocks those in power.
“The recent loss of dear Mike Yarwood was a reminder of how politicians actually adopted the catchphrases he invented for them. Denis Healey never uttered the words ‘silly billy’ in his life, but they gained such traction as 20 million of us settled down to watch every Saturday night in the 1970s, that he decided to start using the phrase himself.”
Innocent times. Relatively speaking. A decade later, John Major never forgave Spitting Image for portraying him as a grey-skinned, tedious bureaucrat. Wee David Steel, his puppet dwarfed by Big David Owen, always insisted he got the joke but his wife Judy, in her 2012 tell-all biography Tales from the Tap End, claimed the pipsqueak lampoon killed off Steel’s political career.
Culshaw has no truck with complaints that these days our politicians are too bland to be sent up. Nor has he any intention of retiring his Boris “fwah fwahs” any time soon.
“I suspect he will remain in the public consciousness for a very long time and as long as he’s topical I will keep doing him. David Cameron was anodyne, albeit with a slippery hinterland of snobbery that curdled when he spoke, but – for impressionists – Boris was a kind of quantitative easing. He may be gone but he’s not forgotten and other characters are still there; Keir Starmer’s weird timidity, too busy wrestling with cardboard boxes to grab the big moments.”
He segues into Jacob Rees-Mogg and I’m almost crying with laughter: “I’m erudite, electable, effete and debonair. With Woody Allen spectacles and Adolf Hitler’s hair.” I beg him for more – softly spoken Culshaw is most definitely not the sort of hammy mimic who “does voices” in the course of normal conversation.
In rapid succession his protean features transform into Gordon Brown, William Hague, John Lydon (tilted head staring into the camera with incandescent honesty) and Richard Branson’s amelioratory teeth.
Culshaw is playing both Lydon and Branson in a forthcoming drama about the Sex Pistols’ controversial 1977 album Never Mind the B------s that will be out later in the year. It follows on from a slew of well-received straight acting roles; David Bowie in a radio play about the final weeks before his death from cancer. Les Dawson on stage, Hughie Green on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year.
“I’m increasingly drawn to projects where I’m playing a character with a longer narrative,” he says. “It’s about digging down to gradually reveal nuggets of truth rather than going for the quick smash-and-grab hit of a punchline.”
Having lived in London for 26 years, Culshaw is now largely 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 learn lines” and also somewhere to pursue his passion for astronomy. He appeared on The Sky at Night’s 700th episode alongside physicist Brian Cox and Queen guitarist Brian May, who has a sideline in astrophysics.
“I’m off to New Mexico next month for the annular eclipse on October 14,” he says, beaming with anticipation. It’s also known as the ring-of-fire eclipse because, when the Moon passes in front of the sun, it doesn’t cover it completely but leaves a thin outer rim of light. “The prime spot is in Roswell, by coincidence. Or is it?” We must hope he isn’t abducted by aliens, not least because he’s got a busy schedule of audiobooks, voiceovers and the next Dead Ringers in the pipeline. His personal life – he’s single at present – is also due for a reboot.
“I never really got married, although it wasn’t my intention,” he says, mildly. “I’ve just always been perfectly content with my own company; I’ve always stayed friends with any women that I’ve been out with. One recently compared me to Doctor Who [he does a spot-on Tom Baker]; I’m around for two or three years and then it’s time for me to move on and for them to move on and everyone is quite happy with that.
“I have a hunch that I’ll grow up and settle down in five to ten years; I’m just lagging behind a bit.”
As far as Partygate is concerned, I’m very much hoping more viewers will be drawn (fooled) into watching by the jubilant revelry of the trailer. “Nobody is going to sit down and read the Sue Gray report,” says Culshaw. “But we need to remember that these things happened. I also hope Partygate will serve as a reminder to those in power that this sort of swaggering arrogance and entitlement are not acceptable in public life.”
Partygate is on Channel 4 on October 3rd at 9.30pm