Professor T: Ben Miller discusses his OCD
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"We went for a half-term holiday in Morocco and couldn't come back for four months," the Professor T star tells me. The heart bleeds…
Don't be too envious, though. When the Millers finally landed at Gatwick, they realised they had parked in the short stay carpark. "They were very kind to us," says Ben. "They let us off…but then the car wouldn't start. The battery had died…"
Multi-talented Miller – comedian, TV favourite and film star, acclaimed for his roles in the Johnny English and Paddington movies – used the unexpected break to pen his latest children's fantasy book.
The Night We Get Stuck In A Story, out this week, is the sixth in his best-selling series of magical adventures percolated in warm humour.
"The stories are based on my children," he says. In this one, his youngest sprogs, Harrison, 10, and Lana, 7, find "a hollow tree that leads to the story their nanna had been reading them and have to defeat an evil witch".
Comedian, TV favourite and film star Ben Miller (Image: HANDOUT)
Miller weaves the children's real-life activities into the tale, along with some science and a dollop of the classics.
"In this one it's Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic with Grendel the monster," he explains. "I like to tap into the folklore we all share and connect with.
"I wrote the first book for my eldest son, Jackson, who told me he wasn't sure Father Christmas existed. So I wrote a story that proved he did." The water-tight slice of pro-Santa propaganda sold half a million copies in a matter of months.
Ben, 56, is full of more surprises than the quantum physics he studied at Cambridge. For starters he reveals that, "although I am the least Cockney person you could ever meet, I could lay claim to being a Cockney because I was born in St Bartholomew's hospital, Smithfield. My father was from Bethnal Green.
Ben Miller is back on our screens with the return of Professor T (Image: ITV)
"And," he adds less convincingly, "I've got a pearly jacket upstairs, and a pearly hat…"
His paternal grandfather, who had shops in the East End, was clearly an influence. At Malbank comprehensive school in Cheshire, Ben started a black-market tuck shop "buying sweets in bulk and selling them on for a huge profit – I inherited that entrepreneurial streak from him."
He found fame in the Armstrong & Miller comedy double act with Alexander Armstrong, but made his teenage stage debut playing guitar and singing in a schoolboy progressive rock band called Akilai.
"It was either the Latin or Celtic for evil," Ben says with a smile. "There wasn't much singing, not much in the way of lyrics…only those prog rock staples, the wizard and his wonky hat.
"The names of the bands back then… Alexander Armstrong was in a band called Social Authentic."
Wizard-bothering Akilai went down better with audiences than Ben's comedy initially did. "I tried stand-up at university, in one of the pubs in Cambridge. It was disastrous!"
Ben Miller as Stewart James (Image: ITV)
Because of your material or the audience? "A combination," he admits. "I only really got to the stage where I could hold my head above water when I started doing sketches with Alexander Armstrong. That's when I thought, I've really got it – whatever it is!"
The pair created inept detectives Parsons and Lampkin, and Norwegian heavy metal duo Strijka. A sketch based on The Great Escape morphed into their well-known Chav Pilots.
"That was the first sketch that properly worked. A producer saw it and it was serialised on Radio 4's Loose Ends."
They were nominated for a Perrier award at the 1996 Edinburgh festival; Paramount Comedy snapped them up and then Channel 4 signed them for three series.
One highlight was a naked Peak Practice spoof co-starring Sarah Alexander.
Death In Paradise actors Ben Miller and Kris Marshall (Image: GETTY)
Comedy success, Ben argues, is "a bit like clocking up airmiles; it's not about the jokes so much, it's how relaxed you are. An audience can spot whether or not you know what you're doing and if they feel they're in safe hands they're more forgiving.
"We got to the stage where we wanted to play with the audience so the material was just a stepping stone to finding a connection with them. You could have the best jokes but unless you've got that connection it won't work."
Miller, an immensely likeable cove, has established connections with millions of viewers who loved him as DI Richard Poole in the BBC's cosy crime drama Death In Paradise – a dream role which found him wearing a waistcoat in the 45degrees Caribbean summer.
He only quit after three series because wife Jessica was pregnant.
He was lecherous Lord Featherington in Bridgerton, James Lester in Primeval, and is back on ITV on Friday as genius criminologist Professor Jasper Tempest, aka Professor T.
His parents – a lecturer in American literature and an English teacher – relocated to the market town of Nantwich, Cheshire when Ben was a toddler.
Raised on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the first music that was his was the 2-Tone Ska of the Specials and The Beat. He also adored Tolkien, Norse folklore and the Arthurian legends.
He was drawn to drama, but his father convinced him to study science. At Cambridge, Ben joined Footlights where he performed with and dated Rachel Weisz. He obtained a 2:1 in Natural Sciences but abandoned a PhD in solid state physics to appear in a comedy play.
He's happily married to film producer Jessica Parker, whose father Alan played guitar in Blue Mink.
The couple moved to a Gloucestershire hamlet from northwest London seven years ago, residing in a Cotswold stone house with "really low ceilings, we're like the Borrowers", set in idyllic countryside.
His older son is from his first marriage to actress Belinda Stewart-Wilson (Will's "hot mum" in The Inbetweeners).
Miller half knew Armstrong from the Cambridge Footlights but they only properly clicked when his north London flatmate, playwright Jez Butterworth introduced them in 1992. A drunken night on a barge inspired their double act.
Fame came five years later. "There's a definite point when someone stops you in the street for the first time and says 'Hey Ben' and you realise you don't know them, they know you from TV."
His comedy success allowed him to branch into TV acting and then co-presenting popular science show, ITV's It's Not Rocket Science.
Born in 1966, Ben is a passionate England supporter. He enjoys TV detectives, citing Morse and Columbo as the historic best. "But I also loved The Killing and The Bridge – which were everything light and fluffy British crime shows weren't; after them a little bit of darkness crept in."
Professor T, back for a second series this week, is shot in Belgium and "has a bit of a Scandi-noir flavour", he says. The new run looks deeper into the Prof's troubled past.
Ben is enjoying life. "I love being a parent, we've given the kids interesting experiences," he says but acknowledges "I can get too wrapped up in work, and find it hard to switch off.
"When you're filming or working non-stop, you get in a strange head space and there's a weird decompression when I get back home. But by that time my wife is really hacked off with the child care on own for four months."
Writing fantasy books offered a solution. "I love it. I can be at home and around for the school run and lunch. I've got into working for short periods, so I try to be very focused.
"As you get older you realise you're not a run-away train."
Books like The Day I Fell Into A Fairy-tale sound like films waiting to be made, I say.
"The rights are available!" he laughs. "And I've got another out at Christmas."
- Ben Miller's The Night We Got Stuck in a Story is published on Thursday September 15. Professor T returns on Friday.
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