A rather gloomy lounge in a rather gloomy hotel near Victoria station turns out to be an apt place to meet John Bird, who is, in the most engaging way possible, rather gloomy. Only once does he radiate something approaching happiness, and that is when he says brightly, "I am, on the whole, a very pessimistic person." Tea with Eeyore would be jollier, but that is not to say that Bird is anything other than stimulating company. Our conversation embraces Michael Portillo, Jackie Kennedy, the night Ken Tynan said the first F-word to be uttered on television, and llamas.
But first, Chambers, the BBC1 sitcom in which Bird plays a scheming barrister. Bearing in mind his po-faced dialogues in Bremner, Bird and Fortune, in which he and his long-time cohort John Fortune make a mockery of political buffoonery, I wonder whether he thinks it understandable that so many politicians are former lawyers?
"Yes, well, in America it must be 90 per cent of them, and you can see why that should be," he says. "Where you have a legal system that is adversarial, it's not a difficult journey to make. But there are fewer of them in politics here in Britain because of that rather charming self-delusion of lawyers that they are not partisan, that they operate in a field of pure objectivity.
"Actually, Clive [Coleman, who wrote Chambers] tells a wonderful story of when he was a junior in a case presented by a very senior barrister – who are rather like opera singers in that they come in at the last minute to do their turn, having supposedly absorbed a terribly complicated brief. Anyway, this fellow came in and made his opening address, but his team realised to their horror that he was speaking for the wrong side. They kept tugging at his gown and eventually managed to whisper to him, whereupon, without batting an eyelid, he said 'and that, your honour, is the case which I shall now proceed to demolish'."
A slight chuckle. "So law, like politics, is to some extent a charade," Bird continues. Has he met the former barrister Tony Blair, I ask? "I haven't. On the whole I think it's wiser not to, because they disarm you with charm. John, Rory and myself did have lunch with Portillo, and, sure enough, he was very charming. He said one very interesting thing. We were talking about Mandelson, and he said 'Very interesting man, Mandelson. What he needs is a really good political adviser. I think I'd be able to do that very well.' Don't you think that's interesting?"
Extremely. But let's talk about you, I say. He winces just a little. I tell him I want to discuss his considerable intellect. After all, at Cambridge he did a postgraduate thesis on European drama from 1888 to 1914, and once gave a seminar on stage lighting in Ibsen to a group of "poor bastards", one of whom was John Fortune.
"Oh, I don't think I'm an intellectual. I'm much less cultivated than I thought I was – a much shallower person. I don't understand a lot of things I read. For instance, at one point I thought I should get to grips with critical theory, and I simply failed to understand it. Intellectuals say that if you listen to a piece of music you should say, if only to yourself, something intelligent about it. Otherwise you drift. I'm afraid that I fail on that score, too. Intellectual matters are a far cry from the things that mean a lot to me." Which are? "Being at home with my partner and my animals."
Bird and his partner of 23 years, Libby – whom he credits with rescuing him from a period of excessive alcohol and amphetamine intake – live in Surrey with a dog, three cats, and two llamas, named Snowflake and Whisper. Bird has no children, but rather sweetly talks of Snowflake and Whisper exactly as a father might of his kids, explaining their contrasting personalities. "I am very, very fond of animals. I like the way they spend all their time being completely themselves, with no hidden agendas. A dog is a dog 100 per cent of the time, and I find that very appealing. They have the same innocence as very young children. Cruelty to young children and animals seems to me absolutely horrifying."
I wonder whether Bird's devotion to animals reflects his disappointment in human beings? If he were sitting on a psychotherapist's couch, rather than a shabby armchair in a gloomy hotel lounge, it might be a subject worth pursuing. As it is, I ask how much do llamas cost? "About £2,000. Somebody told me today that Mick Hucknall has just bought one. I don't know what that says about keeping llamas. We used to have wallabies. We had a female who gave birth to a little wallaby, which used to dive back into her pouch. I sometimes think children should be able to dive back into the womb."
Clearly, Bird is disappointed in humanity, but at least he has been able to turn human frailty to his professional advantage. Research for his dialogues with Fortune sometimes unveils barely believable cock-ups, such as the project to build the Eurofighter. The British built one wing and the Spanish another, a laudable Euro-effort, except for the fact that we measured our wing in inches and they measured theirs in centimetres, and one was therefore quite a bit longer than the other.
"Yes, those conversations are most satisfying when they're not invented," says Bird. Where does he stand on the jolly old euro? "Oh, on the whole I'm in favour, and I think it is civilising for us to be part of Europe, and I'm certainly all for a fraying of nationalism. But it is depressing the way central bankers go about their business. And there are too many summits. These politicians love their summits. I don't like the violence, but I do think they deserve to cower in their hotel rooms."
Spoken like a true, if somewhat embittered, old satirist. One of the oldest, in fact, for Bird – a Nottingham grammar school boy who burst into the limelight at Cambridge by directing a series of dazzling plays and ultimately the Footlights revue ("That's John Bird, he directs plays, he's a genius", Fortune recalls telling a friend) – was right there at the beginning of the satire boom. In fact, Ned Sherrin credits him with conceiving the title That Was The Week That Was. Bird doesn't remember it, "but if that's what Ned says...".
He does remember founding The Establishment Club in Soho with Peter Cook in 1961. The following year they went to Chicago, then New York, and set up shop there. "And we were very fashionable. Joseph Heller came, and Jackie Kennedy, who got to know Peter quite well. It was a very good time to be there. There was a tangible sense, maybe for the last time, that people could look forward to the future with optimism, a feeling which reached its apogee in landing on the Moon.
"But, at the same time, it was interesting to see the machine in operation. I used to introduce the show every night, and I once made a joke about Kennedy having a bad back. The implication was that it hampered his sexual performance. And the very next day the man who owned the lease of the club was told that if the joke was repeated the club would be closed down. You can't imagine that happening now."
Nor, unless it pops up in the Queen's Speech, is the word F-word likely to cause a stir on television these days. Bird recalls with great clarity the night Ken Tynan said it – 13 November, 1965, on the late-night series BBC3. "I was in make-up. And the make-up girl said, 'Did you hear that?' I said, 'Hear what?' There was a terrible row afterwards, but I must say I was not aware at the time of it being a great liberating moment."
It is time now for Bird to catch his train home to Surrey, Libby, Snowflake and Whisper. I ask whether he has any unfulfilled ambitions? "No. I very much enjoy what I do with John and Rory. But otherwise, I've become lacking in ambition." He sighs, shakes my hand rather flaccidly, and is gone. In a miserable kind of way, it's been fun.
'Chambers' continues on Sunday at 9.30pm on BBC1Reuse content