■ Comic and actor David Mitchell, 44, on a new series of Upstart Crow and why fatherhood has ruined TV for him
What can people expect from the new series?
More of the same but better. I love doing Upstart Crow and this is the best series to date. We address whether fairies, sprites and pixies are under-represented in contemporary drama, the issues of awards ceremonies and benefit nights such as Comic Relief, and the making of The Merchant Of Venice. It’s packed with clever, stupid and childish jokes.
Are you a fan of awards ceremonies?
In general, no. I’ve been to lots and I usually don’t win the award I’m up for. I’d like them more if I always won. They’re more pleasant when you win but they’re usually stressful.
Are you good at looking happy for others?
I usually get away with it. No one’s noticed the insincerity of my smile when someone else wins. I’ve always wondered why that’s the convention. If the award is supposed to be a big deal then surely you should look pissed off when you don’t win it.
Was Ben Elton an influence when you were younger?
Very much so. I loved The Young Ones, Blackadder and his stand-up show. He’s a really brilliant man. It’s been a huge privilege getting to know him. Despite his obvious successes he’s underrated — he’s a real creative force. I was asked to do the first read-through of Upstart Crow and he said he wrote the part with my voice in his head — so it was easy for me to land the role.
When you first started working with him, did you manage to control your admiration?
I find it genuinely embarrassing to pay people compliments to their face. I find it awkward. It took me a long time to tell him how impressed I was with his work.
Is that because you’re worried it might come across as insincere?
It’s more of an instinctive thing. I once read an anthropology book about the British, which said that we believe we should never do something active that people find rude — but we don’t mind being rude by omission. So if in doubt I keep quiet. I’m too shy to give compliments. If I’m not sure what to say, I don’t say anything. Unless I’m on a panel show and I say whatever comes into my head. That’s probably why I like doing them — the audience and cameras liberate me from my natural reticence.
Did you learn anything about Robert Webb from reading his autobiography?
I’ve known Rob a long time so I knew his mum died when he was in his teens and I registered that that was a very sad thing but I hadn’t properly thought through what that must have been like. It was only through reading the book I realised he went through a lot to get to university and then forge the career he has. It reminded me of a lot of the special things about him. And there were a lot of good jokes in that book as well.
What are your favourite truths from Would I Lie To You?
The one I found hardest to get over was that Dom Joly went to school with Osama bin Laden. That shocked me.
Have any of the lies you’ve told on the show stuck with you?
People know I’ve only bought two albums and I’m obsessive about not losing pens — those are true. The lie I thought I most successfully told was that elephants in zoos are attracted to me — but no one believed it. I believed it when I said it and now I’m surprised when elephants are indifferent to me.
Has fatherhood changed you?
I’m much more frightened by the world now. There’s nothing like having a small child to remind you of the frailty of human existence. It makes watching television more difficult — instead of wanting exciting stories you want boring, restful ones. You don’t want any more jeopardy — there are already so many stories about children being abducted.
What lessons has your career in showbiz taught you?
That in any creative thing you need to have all the things you can do working as well as possible — and then you need a huge amount of luck. You need a good cast, a good script, a good idea — and you need it to come off. It’s like a cup of tea. Some cups of tea really come off and some just don’t. Nobody knows why. So a TV show is like a cup of tea that costs millions of pounds, so the level of disappointment when it doesn’t come off is huge.
When was the last time that happened to you?
I did a sitcom in 2004 called Doctors And Nurses. It was great fun, great writers, but it didn’t have that extra element of luck so we only got one series. Everyone was disappointed but there was no particular reason — ultimately it lacked whatever it is that makes a cup of tea great.
Upstart Crow starts on BBC2 tomorrow at 8.30pm