Jimmy Mulville: 'The Scouser in me helps me cut through middle-class chatter'

The comedy creative tells Brian Viner how he owes his latest success to Richard Nixon

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The Independent Online

For Jimmy Mulville, life is sweet. The co-founder of Hat Trick Productions, one of British television's most influential movers and shakers, saw the pilot episode of Nixon's the One, the remarkable project he developed with the American actor Harry Shearer, aired to critical acclaim last Thursday on Sky Arts 1. On BBC1, Have I Got News for You, Hat Trick's venerable panel show currently in its 21st year and its 43rd series, is as fresh and funny as ever. Last week, Everton came back from 4-2 down at Old Trafford to draw 4-4, and they scored four goals again on Saturday.

Growing up in Liverpool, the only son of a boilermaker and a waitress, Mulville was always likely to develop a love of football. And since Everton were the team his father and uncles followed, Everton it was. But he confounded most other expectations of a working-class Scouse kid, leaving his comprehensive school to read classics at Cambridge University, where in due course he became president of the Footlights.

There have doubtless been Cambridge Footlights presidents who made no impact whatever on the world of entertainment, but between 1960 and 1977, when Mulville was elected, their number included Peter Cook, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Eric Idle, Clive James and Clive Anderson. The dame in the student pantomime Mulville wrote with his friend (and future Hat Trick co-founder, along with Mulville's then-wife, Denise O'Donoghue) Rory McGrath, was Nick Hytner, now Sir Nicholas and artistic director of the National Theatre. Yet it would be wrong to say that Cambridge was the making of Jimmy Mulville. Liverpool was the making of him.

"I really love where I come from," he says. "At Cambridge, if I'm honest, I was slightly ashamed of it. But in my twenties I worked through that, and I realised that, no offence to Caterham, I'd rather come from Liverpool than the Home Counties. So why did I leave? Because the thing about roots, about healthy roots, is that you're meant to stay attached to them while growing away from them. But it's such a big part of my soul, and also the Scouser in me knows when someone is bullsh*tting. The Scouser in me helps me cut through the Gordian knot of British middle-class conversation."

This, Mulville says non-ironically, his Liverpool accent clearly discernible but now slightly gentrified, over a wheat-free breakfast in a private members' club in Notting Hill, spiritual home of the chattering classes. Whether it's the Scouser in him, or the Cambridge graduate, or the former actor and comedian, or the 57-year-old television executive, he is an extraordinarily fecund, free-ranging conversationalist. Indeed, the only difficulty with interviewing him is a shortage of time, no matter how long he's got.

Kirsty Young doubtless had the same problem on Desert Island Discs last summer, on which Mulville discussed his father's suicide, which was in part responsible for the cocaine and alcohol addictions that he eventually overcame, as well as a bout of throat cancer, his (three) marriages, fatherhood (which came to him relatively late, in his mid-forties) and stepfatherhood, with as much eloquence and candour as the story of his prodigious professional success.

His latest success story is Nixon's the One, which is to be turned into a six-part series. It was Shearer's concept, forged from the many thousands of hours of audio recordings from Richard Nixon's White House, and the conceit is that as well as tape recorders in the Oval Office there were also hidden cameras. So we see Nixon (Shearer, in heavy prosthetics) and his entourage, headed by Henry Kissinger (Henry Goodman), but the words are exactly as originally spoken, and all the more startling for it.

"It wasn't just Watergate," Mulville explains. "Nixon taped all the daily comings and goings in all his executive offices. He felt a responsibility to record the diurnal processes of running the world, and various themes emerge, such as his general paranoia, and paranoia about the Jews.

"He had a very interesting relationship with Kissinger. He liked the idea that the cleverest Jew in America was working for him. But he was in his office one day with (Bob) Haldeman, and he said: 'Why are the IRS going after John Wayne, and Billy Graham? These people are friends of ours. Get me some rich Jews, some rich Jewish Democrats. Let's go after them.' It's fantastic material, and you couldn't write it. If you wrote it, people would say it's ridiculous, over the top. But what you realise, watching him, is that you're watching every politician, from the Emperor Augustus to Barack Obama. In the end they all go mad, because they're only ever talking to themselves, or to a hall of mirrors. These people – the Haldemans, Ehrlichmans, Kissingers – they just dance around the man in power."

Mulville pitched the idea to several broadcasters, including the BBC and Channel 4, but only Sky Arts really embraced it. That Shearer brought it to him in the first place, however, bespoke a confidence in British programming that Mulville insists is warranted. "People moan about British television, but the broadcasters are generally supportive of ideas they like. They don't tend to micromanage you, unlike the US networks."

He was the first British producer to produce a home-grown show for American television – Whose Line Is it Anyway? – but there have been more false starts than not. "There have been two US pilots of [another of his hit shows] Outnumbered," he says, "but it still hasn't worked, because they want to make it more about the parents." That reminds me, I say, of the American television executives who spent three days discussing how they were going to adapt Fawlty Towers, before emerging to tell John Cleese that they'd decided to remove the Basil character.

Mulville laughs. "But you know, you meet very, very few stupid people in this business. And you learn as you get older. In the early days, broadcasters projected on to the independent sector an instability and a flakiness, but look at some of the independent companies now. Mine is 26 years old, and the paradox is that I'm a constant, and they're the birds of passage. Bernie Brillstein, a wonderful old American producer-manager who looked like Father Christmas, once said to me: 'I'll sit there, Jimmy, and pitch them an idea, and see them glaze over, desperate to get me out of the office, and I'll think, f*ck you! I'll deal with your successor.'"

Of course, all those successive BBC suits know that in Have I Got News for You, they have enduring comedy gold. Yet Mulville's original expectations were low. "I didn't even like the title, and the pilot was the worst programme made by human beings up to that point. It just didn't work, but then we got Angus [Deayton] in, who was to the manner born. From that moment on, I thought, this could be good, actually."

It is almost a decade since Mulville sacked Deayton following revelations about the presenter's private life, a decision that was agonising for him, because he felt that Deayton, no less than Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, was integral to the show's success. "I've not talked about it a lot... but, it was incredibly difficult, a really hard decision, and yet one of those decisions in life that you can't not take. The problem was that he was now a music-hall joke, and as a music-hall joke, he couldn't deliver music-hall jokes." Did Deayton acknowledge that? "I don't know. We stopped swapping Christmas cards at that point, which was a shame. I have to say, he was a brilliant, brilliant host."

Since Deayton's departure, and despite periodic discussions with the BBC about installing somebody permanent, Hat Trick has stuck with the guest-presenter format. "It seems to work," Mulville says. "But the success of that show is really down to the producers, who really care about it. And some of them now have been watching it since they were at school."

Another source of pride is that the show is strong enough to make and even re-make entire careers, not least that of Bruce Forsyth, for it was dear old Brucie's appearance as guest presenter in 2003 that, by his own admission, made him a credible television star again.

"It came about when Paul met Bruce at a party. Paul suggested it, and I thought, this is either a genius idea, or it's not. But you know what, he came in at 8am, worked solidly for 12 hours, then went on and did a two-hour recording. He was a gentleman, polite and impeccable. And he'd only been overlooked because of his age, which happens a lot in this business. I'll pitch a writer – a writer! – in his fifties, and I might get, 'Ermm, isn't he a bit old?' Which misses the point completely, because in comedy you often get better as you get older. Bruce later rang me and said, 'I want to thank you and the team, Jimmy. Doors are opening for me now that I thought were closed to me for ever.' It couldn't happen to a nicer bloke."

Ditto, Mulville's own success, though it didn't come entirely out of the blue. "I was always in school plays," he says, when I ask what early signs there were of his creative talents. "And I remember a maths teacher, a man of few words, shuffling up to me after Androcles and the Lion, in which I'd played Androcles. He said, 'Mulville, you're quite good at this. I strongly recommend you consider it as a career.' That was quite an enlightened thing to say in Liverpool in the 1960s. Mind you, I was sh*t at maths."

A Life In Brief

Born in Walton, Liverpool, on 5 January 1955.

A father of four, he lives with his third wife, Karen.

Studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, and became president of the Cambridge Footlights. In his last year of his French and classics degree, his father fell ill with a rare strain of viral polio. He committed suicide a year after the diagnosis.

Worked for BBC Radio comedy after graduation but moved to television in 1984 and then co-founded Hat Trick.

Went to rehab in 1988 for an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, but has since been teetotal. Successfully treated for throat cancer in 2002.