Tripping down the courtyard steps, having a bad hair day and generally sticking out like a sore thumb is exactly what you don’t want from your first day at uni. But for any freshers who forgot their bag, turned up on the wrong day or called their professor ‘Mum’ by mistake, be assured you’re not alone. As comedy actor and Footlights alumnus Ben Miller can confirm.
“It was traumatic,” he says, recalling his first day at Cambridge in the late 80s. “I was from a comp, and the ways of academic dress were a mystery to me. When I arrived for the matriculation photograph, I was told my clothes were unsuitable, and not having anything else in my army surplus duffel bag I went to play electric guitar in my room.
“The head porter came to berate me, then softened when he realised it wasn’t anti-establishment pique but a genuine culture clash. I still remember walking out for the photograph, my entire year standing on those weird wooden benches they use, and everyone catcalling and jeering. Not a great start!”
Star of The Armstrong and Miller Show, and Footlights alumnus, Ben is about to return to Cambridge in The Duck House – a brand new comedy play about the parliamentary expenses scandal, which hits the West End in December. It follows his successful run in The Ladykillers and promises a hilarious romp through that much-mocked episode in modern politics.
“The piece was so funny that I had to do it,” says Ben. “I wasn’t looking to take on another play so soon after The Ladykillers, but as soon as I read the script, I changed my mind.”
In it, Ben plays a Labour MP who, fearful of being turfed out by the voters at the impending general election, has opted to defect to the Conservatives.
“He’s a bit of a champagne socialist; a loveable rogue. From his point of view, the system of expenses has simply been part of the culture of Westminster and he’s followed the rules, just like everybody else, although he has fully exploited them and now has to get rid of the evidence.”
Ben, who read natural sciences at St Catharine’s, joined Footlights in his third year, realising quickly that comic acting was his calling.
“My first play was Othello. I played Cassio, and every time I came on people started laughing. I decided to try and write some comedy and put on a spoof Shakespeare play, Norman Thane of Spane. I played Norman. The Footlights President saw it and asked me to join.”
While at Footlights, Ben dated the now Mrs James Bond, Rachel Weisz, who “was as glamorous then as she is now”, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Andy Parsons and Stephen Mangan, “who seems to get every part I covet in the world of theatre, TV and film”.
“It is amazing how many people have gone on to do more stuff,” he adds. “That said, the funniest person in Footlights when I was there was James Hickish, and he became a teacher.”
“I had earrings and bleached blonde hair… I was also in a student band. We made it to the final of the 1990 Cambridge Rock Competition: still my proudest achievement. We came third”
What was he, Ben, like as a student?
“Well, I was very keen on my subject, weirdly. And natural sciences wasn’t the coolest thing to study – I’m not sure if that’s changed. I used to lie and say I was studying ‘Arch & Anth’. I had earrings and bleached blonde hair… I was also in a student band called The Dear Johns. We made it to the final of the 1990 Cambridge Rock Competition: still my proudest achievement. We came third.”
Today, physics is still a hobby of his – “just like Rod Stewart with his train set,” he grins. “I think both comedy and science share a sceptical attitude to the world: they both want to find out what’s real and cut things down to size.”
On graduating, Ben teamed up with fellow Footlighter, the equally in-demand Alexander Armstrong, for a number of sketch show series, then moved seamlessly into drama with a role in ITV’s Primeval, swiftly followed by The Worst Week and Death in Paradise. He has two feature films awaiting release; Molly Moon and What We Did On Our Holiday with Billy Connolly and David Tennant.
Now, however, he’s looking forward to returning to Cambridge, where it all began. “It’s the place where I found my confidence and stumbled across the world of theatre, which has been my abiding passion ever since,” he reflects. Let’s just hope he arrives more suitably attired this time.
:: The Duck House is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, 18-23 November, 7.45pm. Tickets from £15.