HAVING brilliantly satirised political spin, actor Peter Capaldi takes the director's chair for a new, dark comedy series. This time it's hospital corridors, not the corridors of power, where the laughter begins, says James Rampton
MALCOLM TUCKER – the fictional No 10 spin doctor and rudest man in Britain – has become a truly iconic character. But there are downsides of that status for Peter Capaldi, the Scottish actor who portrays Malcolm with such rare brio in the BBC TV series, The Thick of It, and the spin-off movie, In the Loop.
"An extraordinary number of people now stop me in the street," Capaldi almost whistles with astonishment. "They beg me to tell them to 'f*** off' or ask me to call their pals and bollock them down the phone. It's quite bizarre!"
Bizarre it may be, but the intense public interest is also indicative of the extent to which Malcolm has helped catapult Capaldi into the big league. The 51-year-old Glaswegian has always been one of our finest performers, yet for some time he operated below the radar of widespread recognition.
Now, however, the spin doctor from hell – thought by some to be based on Tony Blair's former communications chief, Alistair Campbell – has boosted the actor's profile no end. Four years ago Capaldi burst into the nation's consciousness as a kinetic, incendiary ball of government-special-adviser rage in the series devised, written and directed by another talented Scot of Italian descent, Armando Iannucci.
Since then, Capaldi has starred in Doctor Who, Skins, Torchwood, Pinochet in Suburbia and Aftersun. And, in a neatly ironic piece of casting, the Scottish-Italian actor also gave a memorable turn as the archetypal Englishman, King Charles I, in The Devil's Whore, last year's award-winning C4 drama about the English Civil War.
In person, Capaldi is a compelling character. When we meet in central London, he shows himself to be the polar opposite of his most celebrated alter ego – he is as cool, calm and collected as Malcolm is furious, fearsome and ferocious. Yet the actor still possesses the same innate magnetism and relish of language – if nowhere near the same love of gratuitous swearing – as his fictional creation.
The actor is the first to acknowledge that: "Malcolm has transformed my career. It's not just about the improvement in the opportunities I'm being given, it's also about the work itself on The Thick of It. There are only a handful of really good TV programmes, and I'm blessed to be in one of them."
The new-found stature has also helped Capaldi to return to another love: directing. He won an Oscar in 1995 for his short film, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. Now he is back behind the camera for Getting On, a jet-black new comedy drama written by and starring Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vikki Pepperdine.
Showing as part of the BBC's Grey Expectations season about old people, this three-parter starts on BBC4 next week. It takes the pulse of three barely competent medics, Nurse Kim Wilde (Brand), Sister Den Flixter (Scanlan) and Doctor Pippa Moore (Pepperdine), who struggle to run a hospital ward full of the elderly and infirm. Drawing on Brand's own experiences as a nurse, it underlines how the old are so often the forgotten members of society. Shot in a derelict wing of a hospital in south London, Getting On utilises the same hand-held, semi-improvised style as The Thick of It. It has even been described as "The Thick of It of the NHS".
Capaldi was asked to direct the series by Scanlan, who plays Terri, the hopeless press officer in The Thick of It, and hopes that Getting On will resonate with TV audiences. "We're portraying a world that is rarely seen on telly, but so many of us are familiar with it. Once you reach a certain age, you find yourself visiting hospitals a lot."
Pulling out his mobile phone, the actor shows me a picture of his mother nursing a bad leg on a ward in Scotland. "When I was editing Getting On, I went up to Glasgow to see my mother in hospital," continues Capaldi, who is married to the actress Elaine Collins, with whom he has a daughter.
"It felt very similar to the ward we were portraying in the series. That's why the whole idea of this show struck a chord with me. I'm 51, my father is dead, and I find myself spending more and more time in hospitals seeing scenes exactly like the ones we filmed for Getting On. I'm not squeamish about hospitals, because I'm all too used to them now. My wife and I were driving past a hospital recently, and I joked to her, 'shall we go in and sit in the caf, for old time's sake?'"
Getting On taps into the rich vein of black comedy that medical staff need to get through the day in a hospital. For instance, when Kim and Den are clearing out the bedside table of a recently deceased patient, they discover she has kept her husband's false teeth as a souvenir. "You could have them put on a nice pendant, couldn't you?," Kim deadpans.
Capaldi, who is patron of both the Association for International Cancer Research and the Aberlour Child Care Trust, emphasises that such gallows humour is vital if you work on a ward. "It's an area ripe for comedic exploitation, but it is rarely engaged with because it's hard to get it right," asserts the actor-director, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art before getting his big break in Local Hero in 1983.
Was Capaldi at all worried, then, about questions of taste? "No," he replies, "because I know what happens in hospitals. I think I have the right to treat this subject with black humour because I've witnessed it myself. I've had very bleak experiences in hospitals, but they were also sometimes very funny.
"It's important we are able to laugh about these things. The nurses' job is emotional and distressing. Their day-to-day work is dealing with people withering and falling to pieces. So black humour is essential for them cope with that. It's just a consequence of their environment."
In Getting On, which was exhaustively researched by its three creators, Capaldi was also anxious to avoid stereotyping all nurses as "angels". "I wanted to humanise them, show the reality of hospital life. In the end, it was easy to get away from a black-and-white, 'angelic' portrayal of the medics."
Capaldi is currently shooting a new series of The Thick of It for broadcast later this year. In the new run, the spin doctor is desperately trying to whip into a line a naive new minister (played by Rebecca Front, an old colleague of Iannucci's from The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge).
"I love getting my teeth into Malcolm again," the actor says, flashing me those teeth. "In the new series, he is carrying a lot of pain as he has to deal with a government that's imploding." Very like reality, then? "Yes, it does echo what's happening to the government at the moment."
The actor is keen to bring some light and shade to the character. "Malcolm does develop in this series. If he simply had to shout the whole time, it would be very dreary. I've come to the conclusion that Malcolm's an evil clown. I used to think he was just sinister and Machiavellian, but I now regard him as a sort of verbal Kramer from Seinfeld. He thinks that constantly insulting people is fabulous – but he's the only one who does!"
Capaldi has found the success of The Thick of It and In the Loop, comedies that are not afraid to show their intelligence, very heartening. "The fact that In the Loop has done hugely well at the box office is a very good lesson to the people who commission things," declares the actor. "It shows there is an appetite for smart humour."
In the Loop is released in the US next month – and it may well boost Capaldi's profile over there. But he's not holding his breath. "I can't imagine I'll be the new George Clooney," he smiles. "That's not really on the cards.
"Hollywood producers aren't going to say, 'get me that swearing, grey-haired, headless chicken. We need him for our new High School Musical movie!' Often British actors go out to LA and come back here to join the cast of Midsomer Murders with a huge sigh of relief. That'll be me!" Finally, the actor reveals that even though Malcolm is a quite mesmerising character, Capaldi feels he can't go on playing him for ever. "I think he should have a strange seizure on election night, where he runs around for two hours giving insane orders to people, and it takes them a while to realise he's psychotic. Then he should be stretchered out of Downing Street.
"After Till Death Us Do Part finished, the wonderful Warren Mitchell did a tour with a stage show called The Thoughts of Chairman Alf. Perhaps I'll end up touring with The Thoughts of Chairman Malc!" Now that's a show I'd pay very good money to see.
• Getting On starts on BBC4 on Wednesday 8 July