Interview: Miles Jupp, comedian and actor

Miles Jupp and Miriam Margolyes rehearse a scene from A Day In The Death of Joe Egg. Picture: Richard Campbell
Share this article

Miles Jupp’s latest role is a man who tries to laugh through tragedy, but first he had to beat the urge to laugh at the wrong time

MILES Jupp is such a notorious corpser – breaking character by inappropriately laughing during scenes – that he contemplated undergoing hypnotherapy to cure himself.

Iain Davidson, who directed him in the BBC sitcom Gary: Tank Commander, wonders “if he’s ever done a single take on any show without corpsing? Just one take? My money’s on ‘no’”.

Jupp wonders whether the writers of The Thick of It actually changed a script to accommodate his sniggers. “After the first table reads, we came back and there were these new lines about this bloke ‘who always laughs’” he says. “And there’s at least one shot of me in the episode where I’m dark red and really holding back giggles.”

Worryingly perhaps, the 32-year-old comic has encountered the same problem rehearsing A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, Peter Nichol’s dark play about a couple, Brian and Sheila, struggling to keep their marriage together while caring for their daughter who has cerebral palsy.

“Acting-wise,” Jupp says, it’s “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

Over a steadying cup of tea at the Citizens’ Theatre, where the revived modern classic had its world premiere in 1967, he speaks admiringly of co-star Miriam Margolyes, who plays his mother, Grace. But he says that “a lot of my time isn’t spent thinking about Brian’s relationship with Grace, but about me trying to hold it together and not laugh hysterically when she says words like ‘vacuum’, which she does very beautifully”.

He says this struggle to suppress his jocularity affords his characters energy. “In a pressurised scene, the closest I can get to laughing without laughing gives me a slight surge”. Which is oddly fitting for this singular comedy-drama. Characters regularly break the fourth wall to address the audience, while Brian and his wife Sheila, played by Sarah Tansey, enact dark comic routines in spite of themselves, alleviating the horror of caring for Joe, their unresponsive “vegetable” daughter.

Following Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Clive Owen, the last actor to portray Brian was Eddie Izzard. Jupp doesn’t see the role as tailored for a stand-up and hasn’t seen his predecessor’s performance for fear of being influenced. But he’s familiar with comedians who relentlessly seek laughter as a coping mechanism.

“It’s interesting to see how long it takes before Brian actually stops making jokes,” he observes. “Certain nervy types are like that all the time. And once he’s into that mood, it’s difficult to get out of.”

A decade ago, Jupp says, having achieved fame as Archie the Inventor in the children’s television series Balamory, he felt out of his depth.

“I was 16-and-a-half stone and if you’re roly-poly and making a few jokes, people just assume you’re fine.” Still, he found a sense of community in acting, with the desire to play characters his own age motivating him to lose weight.

Directed by Phillip Breen, Joe Egg also features Joseph Chance and Olivia Darnley, with ten year-old Abigail Gillespie and 11-year-old Florence Gray alternating as the little girl. The original proved too shocking for some when initially performed, and the censorious Lord Chamberlain’s Office demanded rewrites.

This latest production has excised quaintly racist terms like “fuzzy-wuzzy” but “spastic” is tossed around with period authenticity. As Ricky Gervais has courted controversy this week by defending his use of the word “mong” on Twitter, claiming that it’s now free of association with Down’s syndrome, the play is particularly relevant.

Last month, Jupp played a right-on diversity co-ordinator for Channel 4 in Tom Basden’s promising sitcom pilot Rick and Peter, in which a casually disablist television presenter is forced to share a house with a wheelchair-using actor. And as a friend of, and sometime co-writer with Frankie Boyle, who outraged many joking about Katie Price’s blind and autistic son Harvey, he is sensitive to causing offence. Part of the reason for dropping his early “lord of the manor” stand-up persona for a more personal, storytelling approach was his sense that the character’s class snobbery had become less ridiculous owing to society’s growing “chav-hatred”.

Equally, though, he’d like to highlight the hypocrisy of “a certain type of people and section of the media who think, ‘Great, that’s shocking, how brilliant, we can use that!’ when their take is the same as those enjoying it without conscience.”

Noting that euthanasia and the burdens of carers remain topical, emotive issues, as the father of two very young children, Jupp empathises with Brian’s frustration at being unable to communicate effectively with his offspring.

Nevertheless, “I can’t always understand his selfishness. The first few times we did the ending, I was very, very cross with him. Yet the more we’ve done it and the more I’ve discussed it with the other actors, the more I understand why he’s cracked.”

Partially, that’s out of sympathy for Brian’s frustrated libido. “I’ve never done a thing like this where I’m basically very horny,” he chuckles. “So that’s another thing I can put on my CV, ‘can act sexually if required’. I found the intimacy a bit nerve-racking at first but Sarah was very nice and relaxed about it and I’ve learned to stop thinking about it, other than relentlessly making pointless boyish jokes. And spending a lot on chewing gum.”

His forthcoming Radio 4 series, In and Out of the Kitchen, sees him further exploring sexuality as a gay food writer. And while his lay preacher Nigel in the sitcom Rev doesn’t go in for that sort of thing, he is becoming more schemingly ambitious, challenging Tom Hollander’s central character for the ministry in the second series, returning to BBC2 next month.

Acknowledging a short temper, Jupp reckons he has more dark emotions to explore. “I was doing Mock the Week and Andy Parsons said to me, ‘I reckon you still keep the real you back in your stand-up, you’ve got something you could unleash if you chose to.’ I’m not sure ‘unleash’ is the right word but he suggested I should say all the things I mutter under my breath. If I stopped being a bit nicey-nicey and just let myself go.”

• A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow until 12 November

More from Lifestyle