Explain a bit about Year of the Rabbit.
The concept is a drunken, long in the tooth police officer Rabbit, played by Matt Berry, in Victorian London is assigned a new partner called Wilbur Strauss. He’s come straight out of Cambridge University studying Criminology where he was the only one in his class. He’s probably from some landed estate somewhere. So these two very unlikely partners are put together to go and solve the crimes of the underbelly of Victorian London. And then into the mix comes the third string and that is Mabel, who is the adopted daughter of the head of the police. The three of them make this very unlikely, odd trio.
There’s something of the Labrador puppy about Wilbur, isn’t there?
Absolutely. In fact that’s one of the things I based him on!
Why do you think someone of such obvious breeding has decided to go slum it in the East End with Rabbit?
Good question. The answer is he wants to taste life. I think he knows he’s been very closeted by life, his upbringing and an overbearing family and he wants to go and take a bite out of a real piece of life. It excites him hugely. He’s very excited about solving crime even though he has no idea really how to do it.
One of my favourite episodes is Strauss going undercover as a cockney. You look like you had an absolute ball with that…
Oh my God, the best time! Probably my favourite part I’ve ever played, ‘The Knuckle’ as he’s known. It was an absolute joy. When I heard that was going to happen I literally did a little dance. It’s not normally the kind of role I’d ever get to play. To have a real good go at my Ray Winston was an absolute joy.
Is it quite layered? You’re not playing a cockney, you’re playing a posh boy trying to be a cockney, in a sense. Do you have to take that into account or do you just play it as a cockney?
They’re quite broad brushstrokes because it’s a piece of comedy. You have to be able to flip or turn on a sixpence going from Straussian poshisms to very broad Sid James. The fun is from the fact that it’s so clearly artifice and that everybody around him seems to completely believe him. So it is heightened for sure, but that’s not to say I didn’t try to get the accent right, even a very very cliched version of it.
How did you find working with Matt and Susan?
Amazing. I’ve made two very, very firm friends which is so unusual, to come out of a job – particularly one that you haven’t done for a long time – and come away not only with amazing friends but also in the case of both of them people I really look up to, not least as actors but also as writers too. This was my first real comedy show so I was watching and learning from them; learning how fast you have to think and how open you have to be to new ideas at any moment and not come in with too set a plan in your head and be very prepared to change things up. They are real pros at that. It’s a joy. Of course, we had a lot of laughter, which helps.
It’s such a fun show with so many absurd lines and scenarios. Was there a corpsing issue?
Oh my God, we had one terrible corpse. One of those corpses that everyone else ceases to find funny after the fifteen minute mark where you still can’t act. One word just triggers you off. I don’t know if that moment made it into the show, in a carriage at the very end. It wasn’t even the big moment…
With Keeley Hawes in the carriage?
And Sally. It wasn’t the obvious punchline that made us laugh – something totally stupid beforehand and of course every time we came back to it, it just grew and grew like a horrible boil in the scene that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to laugh. It was pleasure-pain. It was so much fun to corpse like that but you’re aware everyone else is pissed off because you’re running out of time.
Strauss has a really nice line in natty outfits. Did you get a kick out of the clothes.
Yeah. I only really have one costume as Wilbur, but my favourite costume was the one as The Knuckle. Again he’s so overdressed and he’s trying way too hard. When you get to chew the furniture like that, you’re given license to do that. That’s a pleasure. Having the togs to match was great.
The Victorian element to the show works fantastically well. They’re really mined all the humour out of it, haven’t they?
Totally. You get that double joy of it satirising issues of today but through the lens of Victorian London. You get the idea of women’s empowerment and equality of representation and all that stuff. Obviously that’s a central sociological issue this moment of our history, so being able to play with the satire of what it was like for women back in Victorian London was great fun. I know Suzie had a ball doing that stuff.
Paul Kaye is such a fantastic antagonist, isn’t he?
I love Paul Kaye so much. If I could do every job ever with Paul Kaye I would. He’s wonderful. Again it’s not usual on TV and film you get to bring such colour and vivacity to characters you’re being asked to play. You’re playing naturalistically most of the time. Paul is a beacon when he comes on. He’s so heightened and enormous but true and a total joy of a w*nker. He’s a great, great w*nker. Whenever he’s on screen you’re wondering when is he going to come back.
You’ve got a background in theatre as well as TV and drama as well as comedy. Do you go about each different style in different ways? Do you approach comedy and drama differently?
A very good question. The answer is not really, no. I don’t really approach any part in any particular way. I tend to get an instinct on the way I want to do it, depending on that role. The mediums of comedy, theatre, film, radio, whatever… I suppose I do slightly different techniques given that, I don’t know, if you’re doing a stage play there is a certain amount of technical facility you need to have and of course there’s technical preparation that you need to do that you don’t need to do quite so much on film. But no, my prep depends entirely on the role and whatever instinct I get for that role and then I’ll dig in. For some parts you go to the zoo. For some parts you read tonnes of books. For some parts you physically change your body. I’d say it’s different depending on the role, not so much the medium.
You were working with some really outstanding comic actors in this series. Do you feel you learned a lot on this job? Do you feel a good actor learns on every job they do?
Again a brilliant question. The answer is yes, one hundred percent. On every job you learn, on every job you should be looking to learn and every decision you make on the jobs you take, they should always try in some way, even if not in a huge way, they should in some way stretch you. For me this job was a total lesson in improvised and situational comedy that I’d not ever had before. You keep your eyes very open and your ears very open and you learn from those around you. It’s been very informative about how I approach other roles, actually, not just comedy in the future. Do your work before but not endeavour to come up with too much ahead of time. Allow the moment to inform your comic positions, or your acting choices, because it’s in those moments of real, live presentness that things really start to zing. That was a really nice experience of being able to let go in order to do the best work.
Lastly, what sort of comedy do you enjoy? What really gets you laughing?
My favourite film is Tootsie. I suppose that’s because it’s very much about my industry and I love all the jokes, albeit a slightly bygone age of the 1980s, a world that I really understand. I love Withnail and I and things like that as well. But there’s something about the physical comedy I love in something like Tootsie, or the work of Chaplin or Keaton, I just love. It gets me, physical comedy. There’s nothing better than it. When it’s done brilliantly, it’s not a lost art but Chaplin and Keaton are the best at it. I just watch with my mouth open, at how brilliant they are. That sort of my stuff is my favourite. But I was weaned on Beverly Hills Cop and the action comedies which I’m also very fond of. So a bit of everything I guess.