Tony Blair's on the run, accused of murder. He has also bedded Mrs Thatcher. It can only mean one thing, finds Vicky Frost ? the Comic Strip crew are back
"I'm getting too old for this nonsense," sighs Robbie Coltrane, as he adjusts his stick-on moustache, straightens his lapels and draws himself up for the camera, clearly not meaning a single word of it. The sound of Rik Mayall exuberantly working on a scene drifts down the corridor towards us, and Coltrane grins, clearly revelling in collaborating with his old cohorts.
Coltrane is taking part in The Hunt for Tony Blair, a new Comic Strip Presents film, in which he performs alongside Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer and Mayall. "It's a bit like a family reunion," he says. "We've known each other for 29 years. Can that really be right? How can that be right? It seems like yesterday that we started this."
Viewers might feel the same way. Five Go Mad in Dorset (which aired on Channel 4's launch night in November 1982), The Comic Strip and indeed Coltrane's TV career have all aged well ? as have the careers of its other stars. Director Peter Richardson has continued to write and direct new Comic Strip instalments with various casts and, it must be said, various degrees of success. But this is the first time for more than a decade that so many of the original team have reunited.
Coltrane recalls being cajoled into auditioning for the original show, an extreme Enid Blyton spoof, by Mayall: "You know when you're young and you meet someone who's got the same humour, you want to get married really," he says. But this time, he was attracted by the premise of the new film: a manhunt for Tony Blair, shot as a 1950s fugitive film, and due to be broadcast to coincide with the publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq.
"When I saw the script, I just thought, 'Yes please'," says Coltrane, who plays Inspector Hutton in the film, which is being shot in a dilapidated old warehouse in Plymouth. "And it's just jolly nice to be with the gang again. The money's dreadful, of course."
This doesn't seem to have put off the likes of Harry Enfield, Ronni Ancona and Inbetweener James Buckley, who are also joining the cast, along with Stephen Mangan ? who, between takes, stands in the sun on the quayside dressed in a hessian toga and a pair of slippers, oblivious to the lunchers in the cafe opposite gawping at him. "When your agent rings up and says they're doing a new Comic Strip called The Hunt for Tony Blair and they'd like you to be Tony Blair, it's a very good day," laughs Mangan, who admits to being slightly starstruck by his co-stars. "You never get over that 'I've seen them on the telly' feeling."
Mangan does not look much like Blair (not least because of his off-the-shoulder costume) and there is no intention to make him sound like Blair, either. "It's not a docudrama or an impression show. We're trying to get an essence and heighten it for comedic purposes." That comedy, of course, comes laced with politics ? and the heightening includes Blair going on the run accused of murdering his predecessor John Smith. He also ends up in bed with Margaret Thatcher, who tells him: "I won my war, you didn't."
Says Mangan: "Comedy can skewer politicians and shine a light on them in a way that two years of Newsnight and Panorama and Question Time never can." Mangan, like many others, greeted Blair's election with great expectation and excitement ? only to have his hopes dashed by the Iraq war. "If you get it right, you can nail something in a politician that no other art form can."
Coltrane, posing in sharp 1950s suit and trilby, believes the film's political edge is important: "You don't want to sound like an old fart, but people don't do satire ? they do observational stuff. 'You know what it's like when you buy a packet of crisps and all the salt is in the bottom?' And you think, 'Yeah, that's fair enough.' But that's the stuff you do in the pub with your mates. When did you last see a comedian who highlighted the irony of Tony Blair being part of the Middle East peace process, when he started the war in fucking Iraq. And nobody's talking about it. Why not? Too busy texting each other. Who's throwing bricks at the American embassy? Nobody."
Richardson is off filming in a small office adjoining a once-grand room that's now stuffed with props, lights and make-up artists. His team are working round the clock: last night, they were filming exterior shots outside a mocked-up 10 Downing Street. He says the idea for The Hunt for Tony Blair popped into his head from nowhere, almost fully formed. The show takes style pointers from The 39 Steps and Sunset Boulevard, with Blair running into a fading Gloria Swanson-like diva who, as Richardson puts it, "happens to be Maggie Thatcher", as played by (who else?) Saunders.
Meanwhile, Planer steps, with some style, into the shoes of Peter Mandelson. "Mandelson was great to play," he says with relish. "You can't help but be beguiled. You may start out with a Spitting Image idea in your head, but I came out thinking, 'I can see how he ticks' and that he had many admirable qualities." Planer thinks the 1950s B&W twist is inspired, a perfect fit for such characters. "Partly, it's that they were all self-dramatising ? Mandelson as much as any of them. The reason it works somehow is because of the melodrama they lived their lives in."
He talks with fondness about his Comic Strip colleagues, and his long-time collaborator Richardson. "I don't know if I still surprise him, but he still surprises me. He's learnt to do many things ? even be quite pleasant to people." But Planer also stresses the need to bring new performers into the Comic Strip fold and "not just have a lot of old people patting each other on the back". His reasoning is simple: "Unless we were doing something about an old people's home, we'd be stuffed, wouldn't we?"
So can we expect a new wave of Comic Strip films? Coltrane is hoping to write one and direct one, and Richardson has plans for a new Famous Five adventure, in which they go to rehab; this could see French and Saunders reunited on screen. Clearly, 30 years in comedy does not dull one's appetite: Mayall says he's hoping to rekindle his TV partnership with Adrian Edmondson. "Ade and I had a good chat and we have a plan. I'm not going to tell you any more, but it's funny."
'It's a bit like getting pissed'
Mayall, who plays a strange character called Professor Predictor, seems to be in his element, dressed in a highwaisted suit, hair slicked back and that incredible face as mobile as ever as he tries out expressions for a photographer. Even our introduction becomes a jokey performance, with Mayall offering his hand in such a way as to try to make me curtsey to him (I don't). "I don't think comedy is a young person's game," he says. "I think it's for everybody. It's one of the great unifying things ? it's a bit like getting pissed, isn't it? You can just have a fucking good laugh."
While Richardson is quite frank about the fact that some of the Comic Strip films are better than others (he hopes there are 10 "classics"), it's not as if the original actors have much to prove. But being part of such a starry cast can have its disadvantages. "You can't believe your luck," says Mangan. "But you also don't want to be the one who ruins it. And there's no getting away from it: this is called The Hunt for Tony Blair and I'm playing Tony Blair and I'm in virtually every scene."
Not that this would stop him volunteering his services again. "The Comic Strip will always be Jennifer, Dawn, Nigel, Peter, Rik and Ade," he says. "But if they're looking for new recruits, I'd be the first to put my hand up. I got this job because they were looking for someone to portray a self-satisfied, smug, supercilious, glib idiot. I was obviously the first name on the list."? The Hunt for Tony Blair will be broadcast to coincide with the publication of the Chilcot inquiry.