Interview: Actor, comedian and author Ben Miller
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Ben Miller tells Katie Jarvis why he loves Kemble Station, the New Inn at Coln and the village of Bagenden...and how he still hasn’t met Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
Actor and comedian Ben Miller has recently been engaged in research of the first order. Luckily, he’s no stranger to this sort of in-depth study: he read Natural Sciences at Cambridge (where he met comedy partner Alexander Armstrong); and embarked on a PhD in quantum effects, before deciding comedy was a more serious option.
For his latest book, Ben had even more important questions to answer: Who or what was Father Christmas before he landed his current, prestigious role? Why does he come down the chimney? Why does he wear red velvet? Indeed, why does he deliver presents in the first place?
The result is The Night I Met Father Christmas, a story about Jackson, a small boy who ends up helping the great man on his round-the-world gift-giving extravaganza.
“Every aspect of Father Christmas is explained. I had to delve right back to source,” Ben revealed exclusively to Cotswold Life.
Ben also starred in one of this year’s must-see films - Johnny English Strikes Again – as Agent Bough, sidekick of Johnny English (the world’s worst spy), played by Rowan Atkinson. “It was amazing fun. Rowan is one of those people I can’t quite take in. His comic gifts are god-given.”
Ben and his wife, producer Jessica Parker, have two children: Harrison, six, and Lana, three. Ben also has a 12-year-old son, Sonny.
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Where do you live and why?
We live in a hamlet near Rendcomb because we fell in love with the house. We’d been house-hunting in North Oxfordshire which, on paper, was exactly where we wanted to be - but we just didn’t click with the countryside. As we got into Marylebone Station, Jess’s mum phoned and said, ‘Have you seen Country Life?’ We opened it, saw the house we now live in, and thought: That’s what we want! It started life as the chauffeur’s cottage for the rather grand house next door; then, over a period of 30 years, an architect lived there and developed it, using all original materials.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
So we moved...err...I’m really bad at this! (Jess would know to the day.) It was an August so I’m guessing that was four years ago. We came for the countryside and stayed for the people. We’ve got the most incredible bunch of friends here now.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
At weekends, we go for walks in Sapperton. Or to the New Inn at Coln; we love Sam and Georgie [Pearman, the owners]. About two years ago, we sold our flat in London because we just weren’t going there anymore. I still love London; we took our kids to Drury Lane last weekend to watch Paddington with an orchestra, which was fantastic. But the great thing about here is that we can be at Kemble Station in half an hour.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
This is the game we all play! We leaf through Cotswold Life – that’s what it’s for – and we decide where in the Cotswolds we’d like to live. There are some extraordinary houses in Gloucestershire; no question about it. Nearly all are a lot grander than ours but we don’t want to move. We’re a skip and a jump from Cheltenham, with its great secondary schools and shops. My wife phoned me yesterday, in a state of giddy excitement, going, ‘JOHN LEWIS IS OPENING IN CHELTENHAM!’
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Anywhere near Gloucester Services because it would bankrupt me. Someone in that shop has thought: ‘What could we stock that Ben Miller couldn’t resist?’ There’s an algorithm on my phone, beaming data straight to them.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
We’re so spoilt. For me, it has to have really good food and an amazing walk. I’ve already mentioned the New Inn at Coln, which has both. It used to be undiscovered… It’s going to be discovered now I’ve put it in here.
And the best place to eat?
131 [the Promenade, Cheltenham]. It’s got that Montpellier vibe, and a kind of shabby chic I really like. You can eat in any way you want: formally; a burger in Crazy Eights; or sitting on the terrace in summer.
What would you do for a special occasion?
Film premieres are incredibly exciting: I love that there is actually a red carpet! It all starts with thinking about what you’re going to wear and where you’ll have it made; this year [for Johnny English Strikes Again], my suit was tailored by Chester Barrie in Savile Row. I had a very light tweed. I do enjoy dressing up. Jess wore one of her own creations – she buys beautiful Berber wedding blankets, from collectives in the mid-Atlas mountains, and turns them into coats. A hefty percentage of the profits go to the charity Project Soar Morocco, which helps and encourages teenage girls to become future leaders.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
You won’t meet a boring person. You stand on the platform at Kemble and it’s like a Country Life fashion show.
... and the worst?
All the rain. A Wimbledon roof would be perfect. If you don’t choose your valley carefully, you end up with wet head and feet throughout the whole year.
Which shop could you not live without?
Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester. It’s almost like she gives you a Tarot reading of your child and what they would like to read next.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Funnily enough, its entrepreneurial pulse. It’s no accident that some of the country’s finest clothing brands, movie companies, travel companies – everything – are based here. My theory is that people who’ve chosen to come to the Cotswolds want a balanced life. They care about their family; they care about their environment; they care about their community. That’s a very unusual thing in the UK.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
There’s a farmer called John, who dresses like a cross between Ratty from Wind in the Willows and Worzel Gummidge. He speaks almost entirely in elongated vowels. Then there’s a guy called James; his kids go to school here but he spends the week in a flat in London. He stands on the platform at Kemble in pink cords, making me feel jealous and underdressed. And there’s Henrietta - the lifeblood of the village - who organizes all the bake-sales at the church fete and delivers the parish magazine in her 4x4.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
I do love cooking but I’ve hardly cooked since I met my wife because she’s too good to compete with. I’d get everything at Jolly Nice [at the Old White Horse Filling Station, Frampton Mansell]. We’d buy some fantastic beef from the cows that graze on the Jolly Nice farm at Westonbirt; serve it with roast vegetables from Jolly Nice; and finish with ice cream from Jolly Nice. I’m a big fan of peanut butter but my family lean towards chocolate.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
From our hill, across the Churn Valley. You drive down in the mornings and the amazing Rendcomb School is lit up by the early sun.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Bagendon; it’s stunning, with the most beautiful church. We go whenever we can, and always make sure we’re at Easter and Christmas services.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Country pursuits: like them or loathe them, they’re an essential part of the Cotswolds; and I happen to like them;
Cotswold green: there can’t be many places in the country with their own colour. You don’t get Birmingham mauve;
And cycling; I’ve really got into it since living here.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Cheltenham Ladies’ College is a favourite because it reminds me of Cambridge. I was at St Catharine’s, which made a huge impression on me. It was the first time I’d experienced living in a beautiful place; after that, everything was a compromise – until we came here.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Parachute jump: there’s nowhere flat to land. I’m not scared of heights; I did a stunt on Johnny English, where I had to jump off the top of a super-yacht – about five storeys off the ground – in a studio. The joke is that Rowan pinches his nose, goes over backwards, and lands on the lower deck. Because it’s the same continuous shot, I had to go through the shot first and jump off onto a tower. It was horrendous! Don’t get me wrong: if you could possibly get a stuntman to do it, you would; nobody wants to insure actors for things like that. But there are things you have to do.
Starter homes or executive properties?
I don’t feel qualified to comment, though I would say it costs the same to build an unattractive house as an attractive one. I wish builders would keep with the Cotswolds vernacular in a Poundbury-type way.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Up in the left, I’d put the Overbury Estate; in the far right, I’d say Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s not really a square but I’d go down to Stow, and then dip into Wiltshire with Malmesbury.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
The clothes I stand up in. I’m so sad that the fantastic outfitter [Pakeman Catto & Carter], next to the Harry Potter chemist in Cirencester, has closed. Luckily enough, I’ve found another one in the Market Place – Barrington Ayre.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Follow your heart. Everyone tells you to live on the edge of a village, but you might prefer a fantastic townhouse in the middle of Cirencester; or a city life in Cheltenham; or a windblown gamekeeper’s cottage on some top-of-the-Cotswolds estate.
And which book should they read?
If they’re at a particularly loose end – if they have children, grandchildren, or they’re an adult with a good sense of humour - then The Night I met Father Christmas by Ben Miller would be perfect! It’s designed to be read in two or three nights in the run-up. At its heart is a very old Christmas story but its main theme is how Father Christmas became Father Christmas – a story not told often enough. You also learn never to patronise Rudloph: a trap that’s easily fallen into.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
One we’ve only just discovered is at Miserden, on the Wills Estate, heading down to the lake.
In summer, there’s a constant rotation of never-ending events – usually something insane. We never want to go away because there’s so much happening. At this time of year, I love the Enchanted Wood at Westonbirt Arboretum.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
Oh my word! I’d sneak into Highgrove and sample Duchy mince pies in Prince Charles’s testing laboratory (because he must have one). Myself and Alexander Armstrong hosted his 70th birthday at the Palladium – We Are Most Amused and Amazed – a night of comedy and magic. Really exciting. If I had actually gone through his suits, I wouldn’t have been able to look him in the eye at the handshaking at the end.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
A monument to the Arts and Crafts movement – all of them sitting at an Arts and Crafts table on Arts and Craft chairs. It would have to be in stone, with lichen on it, and placed in Sapperton.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
They’re doing fine as they are. They have one foot very firmly in the present and another very firmly in the past; it would be a great shame to lose either.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
This is my open invitation to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to meet me at the Woolpack [Slad]. Everybody constantly talks about him - I’ve been in the Cotswolds four years and I haven’t met him yet. Who the hell do I think I am!
• The Night I Met Father Christmas, by Ben Miller, is out in hardback, price £12.99, with Simon & Schuster