Chris Langham: In the thick of it

He has a talent for wringing laughs out of his own poor health. It might be tested in the coming weeks
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Chris Langham's 56-year-old life has been an eventful one, but the past few days of it have been more memorable than most. At the British Comedy Awards on Wednesday evening he was named best actor both for his exquisite turn as a psychotherapist in the brilliant BBC2 comedy Help, which he devised and co-wrote with Paul Whitehouse, and for his rather disconcertingly convincing performance in Armando Iannucci's coruscating and partly improvised political satire for BBC4, The Thick of It, as New Labour's self-pitying, hapless, easily bullied Minister for Social Affairs, the Rt Hon Hugh Abbot. The Thick of It was also crowned Best New Comedy of 2005.

But Langham did not get long to celebrate. Lugubrious even at the best of times, he was promptly plunged into the worst of times, as yesterday's Daily Mirror splashed with the story that he had been arrested 17 days earlier for alleged internet-related child pornography offences, and released on bail until February. Rarely has the British "tall poppy syndrome" of building people up only to chop them down been quite so rapidly deployed.

Whatever, Langham has not been charged with an offence and on the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven - a cornerstone of our judicial system which takes on the consistency of a rubber brick when "celebrities" are involved - it seems safer and fairer to concentrate on Thursday's headlines, rather than yesterday's.

That said, to win the best actor award, Langham had already had to overcome plenty of adversity, notably a spell of alcohol and cocaine addiction that intensified in 1979 when he was sacked after the first series of the iconic sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News, and was replaced by Griff Rhys Jones. Langham's contribution to Not the Nine O'Clock News has not exactly been airbrushed from TV history, but the Guinness Television Encyclopedia refers to him dismissively: "Langham left for a chequered TV future in writing and stand-up comedy, to be replaced by Rhys Jones, who quickly forged a successful liaison with Mel Smith."

Future editions will have to change the word "chequered". Indeed, of the original line-up of Langham, Smith, Pamela Stephenson and Rowan Atkinson, it is Langham - whose spoof documentary series People Like Us was another of the joys of the BBC's recent comedy output, first on radio and then on television - who has ended up with the most lavish critical acclaim.

Like all the best spoof documentaries, People Like Us was enjoyed by some guileless viewers totally unaware that it was anything but real. After the episode about a vicar, Langham received a letter addressed to Roy Mallard, his alter ego, congratulating him for exposing the lack of spirituality in the Church of England.

He is no less convincing playing psychotherapists, a market he seems to have cornered. Indeed, it was after he played a shrink in the sitcom Kiss Me Kate that the BBC invited him to consider a comedy version of Radio 4's In the Psychiatrist's Chair. Instead he pitched the idea of a therapist whose clients are all played by the same actor, in the spirit of Kind Hearts and Coronets. The malleable Whitehouse was the obvious candidate to play the Alec Guinness part.

But not even the acclaim with which Langham's recent work has been greeted can wholly erase the stigma of being sacked from Not the Nine O'Clock News. Two years of depression followed his dismissal by the show's producer John Lloyd, and even though more than 25 years have passed since that painful episode, he still talks poignantly about how it ruptured his self-esteem. "I felt a terrible sense of shame," he said in a recent interview. "I couldn't open a newspaper for two years for fear of seeing a picture of Rowan, Pam or Mel. If I did see one I would burst into tears."

He discovered that he was being dropped when he overheard a pair of make-up artists discussing the next series; he hadn't been told there was going to be one. It was a brutal way to find out, and it still causes him hurt. He also claims that the reason for his dismissal was never explained to him, and he had to be gently coaxed into hooking up with his former colleagues for the Radio 4 programme The Reunion this summer, not wanting "to be a ghost at the feast".

In The Reunion, Atkinson suggested that it was simply a matter of the comic chemistry being wrong. "It was the first time I had been in the same room with all of them," Langham said later. "I was sitting around the table with them thinking how I had always thought they were a slightly larger species than me: stronger, more vivid. But I realised then that the only difference between them and me was that I'm the only one who isn't a millionaire."

Still, he's not doing too badly, materially speaking. He lives in a handsome farmhouse in Kent with his second wife, a musical director called Christine Cartwright, and their two children. To relax, he sails and scuba-dives. He has three sons from his first marriage, which foundered largely because of his alcoholism. This is a subject he will discuss with interviewers with engaging candour, explaining: "As I get older I look at my first kids and realise how terribly I short-changed them. They all somehow grew up to be incredibly nice and kind. But I think this was because they grew up trying to work out how to please their rampaging, dysfunctional father."

Those who knew him at the time say that Langham seemed set on rampaging his way to an early grave, but eventually he managed to give up alcohol and cocaine, realising that drinking in particular was becoming his entire raison d'être.

"My career was being a drunk," he has said, "and work was something I did if I had a spare five minutes. I frightened people. I looked ill. I weighed eight stone and looked like death not warmed up. I passed out a lot. I was self-destructive. It wasn't just the drinking, it was the mindset: you don't like yourself if you are an alcoholic and other people don't like you either, because your behaviour is appalling. You are dishonest, disloyal, full of self-pity."

Langham's honesty about his condition owes a great deal to the psychotherapy that he has been having for years, as, for that matter, does the precision of his performance in Help. He still has a therapy session once a week; in fact, the reason why he eventually agreed to take part in The Reunion was that he thought it might help with his therapy.

Like many people in therapy, Langham makes a cracking newspaper interviewee, because he is so used to nothing being off limits. Billy Connolly, the husband of his ex-colleague Pamela Stephenson, is another who springs to mind. Unlike Connolly, Langham had a materially privileged childhood. Like Connolly's, however, it was emotionally ravaged.

His father, Michael, was one of the leading directors of classical theatre in America, but wanted his son to be educated in England, so sent him to board at St Paul's in London. There, Langham's nickname was the unequivocal "Puke"; he was so nervous about everything that he kept throwing up. "I don't think I told my parents because, being insecure, I was ashamed of my insecurities," he later recalled. He has a talent, shared by many of the best funny men down the years, for wringing laughs out of his own poor physical and emotional health. It is a talent that might be tested in the coming weeks.

Langham conquered his insecurities sufficiently to win a place at Bristol University to read English, but then succumbed to them by dropping out. Actually, whether he dropped out or was booted out appears to be the subject of some doubt. Either way, he soon found gainful employment writing sketches for Spike Milligan's Q, and then spent five years as one of the chief writers on The Muppet Show, which in the 1970s represented the acme of many a comedy writer's ambition. Every week, he helped to script dialogue between Miss Piggy and Peter Sellers, or Raquel Welch, or Roger Moore. Maybe it's no wonder he turned to drink.

Brilliant writer though he clearly is, however, it is as a performer that Langham, belatedly in his career, is in the process of becoming that dreaded institution, a household name. His air of nervous melancholy - which, as we have seen, is by no means entirely an act - has found the perfect repository in the form of Hugh Abbot, whose scheming ineptitude chimes perfectly with Langham's own view of Tony Blair's Government.

"This Government is almost beyond satirising," he concluded recently. "The tail really does wag the dog. Policy is not about people having strong moral principles. The question they ask in Downing Street is: 'Will this policy play well with the Daily Mail?' They are like a sitcom looking for ratings. They panic. They make policies on the hoof. The Daily Mail ran an article about aggressive begging and the next day the Government came up with a policy of marching offenders to cash points. How thought through was that?

"A lot of what we have done is based on real stories that we have heard from sources close to the Government (and) I think this Government attracts and deserves the mockery it gets. It is mock-worthy. When Blair was elected I had such high hopes. I was so excited about the possibilities. Now I feel quite disillusioned and bitter. I feel I've been made to look a fool for trusting Blair."

The Thick of It makes us all feel like fools for trusting Blair. Of course, it's worth reminding oneself that essentially it is fiction, but, worryingly, the former government press officer Martin Sixsmith, who acts as an unofficial adviser to the show, is one of those who testifies to its painful authenticity. And it is the pursuit of authenticity, Langham believes, that justifies the prodigious amount of swearing in the show.

"As the Lance Price diaries show," he has said, "that is how people in No 10 talk. There is a very 'swinging dicks, locker room' atmosphere there. I asked Martin Sixsmith what he thought of a scene we had been improvising. Was it authentic? He said the swearing was dead right. Fuck is a very useful word dramatically." It can come in handy in real life as well.

A Life in Brief

BORN 14 April 1949, in London

FAMILY Lives with his second wife and their two children. He has three children from his first marriage.

EDUCATION Studied English and drama at Bristol University.

CAREER Has worked in television as an actor, director and writer since 1969. Appearances include Alas Smith and Jones, The Comic Strip Presents, The Muppet Show and Not the Nine O'Clock News. Writing credits include: People Like Us, Kiss Me Kate, Spine Chillers and Look at the State We're In!. His work as a director includes Posh Nosh and Henderson Kids. Film credits include Carry On Columbus, Room to Rent, and Life of Brian. Recently finished a second series of The Thick of It on BBC4, and will appear in the BBC adaptation of My Family and Other Animals at Christmas. Won the award for best television actor at the 2005 British Comedy Awards.

HE SAYS "I stopped drinking and taking drugs because they were taking over my life."

THEY SAY "At 56, Chris Langham has become a master of pathos." Nigel Farndale, Sunday Telegraph