David Mitchell has some strong opinions. "Sorry about going off on one about various things," he says at the end of our interview. I don't mind. It's fun to listen to him in full flow and I brought it on myself. My first question was about how the comedic star of the sitcoms Peep Show, Upstart Crow and Back, felt about Brexit. I mean, I already know he feels awful about Brexit. He's been a columnist with the Observer since 2008 and he has just published his latest collection of very entertaining columns, Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy.
“I couldn’t be more bewildered and depressed,” he says. “Do I think we’ll just crash out and there won’t be any insulin for three crucial months or there’ll be an inevitable five per cent shrinking of the economy for no f**king reason and all the motivated people will have gone? Maybe there’ll be a deal that will sort of be similar to what we have but just a bit worse. Or maybe the Johnson government will totally collapse and there’ll be a second referendum and it will go the other way. Those are my hopes but they’re not necessarily my expectations. These people who govern us, it’s largely admin. It’s deciding how much money is raised and then apportioning it . . . It’s for keeping the lampposts on and sweeping the streets. If it gets to the point where there’s suddenly not any medicine and not because of a global shortage of medicine but just because the admin getting the medicine here can’t be done because the head administrators are too f**king up themselves, then my impotent rage will grow even further.”
He pauses. “But you know, what can you do?”
What he does, is he writes columns about it. This collection goes back to 2015. When he looks at the subjects of earlier columns, do they feel like the problems of a halcyon age? He laughs. “I’m afraid so. The book I published before this, a collection of columns leading up to the 2015 election, was looking at the things that had gone awry with the end of the [Gordon] Brown government and the credit crunch and the austerity of the [Conservatives-Liberal Democrats] coalition. That seemed like a pretty depressing trajectory. Looking back at that, it was within the normal range of what we’d taken to be governmental competence . . . I thought that things were coming to a conclusion of wrongness. But no, that was the first teeter before the crash of the country losing control of itself and losing its senses.”
He blames David Cameron. "In 1975, Harold Wilson wanted to stay in the EU," he says. "He called the referendum and he won it. That's because he was a good politician. David Cameron is a second-rate idiot. He called the referendum to keep his party together. It was nothing to do with the country resolving its issues and it didn't go the way he expected because as well as being self-interested he was stupid and wrong."
Mitchell rejects the idea that the referendum was necessary, that millions of people of people were crying out for it. “The two main parties haven’t fought a general election on the issue in a generation,” he says. “We’ve had election after election banging on about taxes and the NHS, which are just details compared to this huge issue of our geopolitical positioning. And that choice was never meaningfully presented to us before. It was presented at the worst time in the worst way and the side who ended up winning did God knows what dark shenanigans funded by Putin to make it go their way. And now we’re stuck with it.”
What has he learned over the years the book represents? He laughs. “Well, that’s a damning question because I don’t know. I think I’m still shouting, ‘Look at what just happened!’”
He thinks for a moment. “Genuinely, I think the internet and the smartphone have been a disaster for civilisation,” he says. “I think it would be very helpful for us to see it as a disaster, see it as something like nuclear weapons or . . . I was going to say the invention of heroin, but morphine is a wonder drug, so there’s an upside to heroin which I really can’t f**king see with the internet. It’s easier to get taxis, but that’s it. It’s addictive. It changes the nature of discourse in a horrible way. What was billed as the democratisation of knowledge has turned into the death of truth.”
He thinks living online is disconnecting people from consequences. “They want shops that aren’t boarded up and aren’t just bookies and charity shops . . . Yet everyone is simultaneously militating against that by buying things from Amazon . . . Our government, despite all the talk about taking back control, can’t even make sure that the huge commerce-crushing multinational that is causing the high streets to die is even paying tax.”
It feels like the world is split into two and the left is just eating itself and the right is marching under terrifying extremist banners
Was he politicised as a student comedian at Cambridge Footlights? Not particularly, he says. “I had all those assumptions that I think a lot of people had since the second World War, that we’ve learned some lessons and things are getting better, not necessarily as quickly as they should, but broadly things are getting less unfair, less sexist, less racist . . . The two big dates of my youth, 1989 [the fall of the Berlin Wall] and 1997 [the election of Blair] just added to a general sense of improvement and civilisation marching, if not at pace, at least steadily. So it’s been a shock to me as I approach middle-age that that is an illusion and that history is not a story of progress . . . I find it very annoying when people say about something that is prejudiced, ‘Well come on, it’s 2019’. That’s not the bottom line. It’s just a year later. It’s not a year better. Go back and look at the fall of Rome. Things can go to absolute s**t. People can forget about central heating for a thousand years. Let’s not assume that because it’s the latest it’s been that it’s also the most civilised it’s been.”
Does he think that by putting aside big ideologies in favour of faith in incremental progress, liberals created a vacuum that was filled by chauvinistic nationalism? “Maybe you’re right,” he says. “If you don’t make the huge ideological arguments that underline the direction you’re pushing in, then maybe someone else will make a counter-ideological argument that people might fall to . . . What’s so lamentably predictable about the extremism is that it comes in the wake of the financial crash.”
‘Would Stephen Fry have done it?’
Why did he want to write a newspaper column? “It was something comedians of previous generations that I’d admired had also done. I often asked myself in career terms, ‘Would Stephen Fry have done it?’ He’s brilliant and emulating him seems like a safe course of action . . . TV projects are big and they’re long term but [with] the column, every week you have to come up with something and it feels like a mountain to climb. You’re drawn to write something and then there’s a thing in the world that wasn’t there before. It’s a nice feeling.”
Is it strange for him as a comedian to do something that, while funny, needs a serious core? The two things go naturally together, he says. “My rhetorical instincts when trying to convince people of what I think is to do it through pointing out the ridiculousness of the contrary view.”
What has changed since he started writing the column? “I’m so conscious of people who are easily offended now,” he says, “both sincerely offended and in other cases recreationally offended. In the comedy world before 2010, it felt like you could sort of say anything. Your point of view was your defence. It wasn’t what you were joking about or the words you used but the point you were trying to make and the point of view you came from [that mattered]. Now anything can be taken out of context and people are looking to take things out of context and deciding you should be thrown out of civilisation.”
Has he experienced that sort of backlash? "It hasn't happened to me, but I've seen it happen to other people and there have been times when a line in a column has got a load of people online going for me and saying quite horrible things," he says. "It turns out that I am not fearless . . . I want to be liked and so I don't have the fearless brilliance of someone like Frankie Boyle who is genuinely a brilliantly funny man but [who] doesn't care if he pisses loads of people off. I do care if I piss lots of people off. I'd probably be a better comedian if I didn't."
Is there not a positive in more people having a say? “Freedom of speech is a positive [but] with the state the online environment [is in] now and the extent the more conventional news media feed off it for column inches, there’s a risk of freedom of speech slightly eating itself,” he says. “Maybe it will change and people will become a bit more inured to it but it makes me more trepidatious about how I express myself and it definitely makes me less funny. [Comedians put things] in an arresting and surprising way but that very instinct will inevitably draw you close to lines that are now being essentially policed by online vigilantes.”
He doesn't think everyone is as worried about potential missteps as liberal left-wing people are. "What I find paradoxical is that the fury with which the way liberals express themselves is policed by other liberals is happening at the same time as the unabashed rise of neo-Nazism. It feels like the world is split into two and the left is just eating itself and the right is marching under terrifying extremist banners. I'm thinking the key to it is pain. The people who get kicked online are the people who the group sense will be hurt by it . . . There's no point going in there and kicking Nigel Farage because he won't feel the kick and he will thrill to the publicity. So I sense there's an unconscious sense of whether it will cause pain behind who gets picked on and called a terrible transgressor."
Does he have any hope for the future? He laughs. “A slightly more optimistic part of me says things do shift over time,” he says. “The fact that there are so many young people and children going on the streets and saying ‘Stop f**king up the planet, it needs to remain habitable’ is a sign of a demographic shift in attitudes. Sometimes things just get better. That’s the closest I’ve got to solid optimism at the moment.”
Luckily, he gets a reprieve from fretting when acting in sitcoms such as Back (alongside longtime collaborator Robert Webb) and Upstart Crow (in which he plays William Shakespeare and which will soon be a stage show). "I find acting, particularly on stage, relaxing," he says. "It's a bit like a sport. You're thinking so much about how you're saying what you're saying and whether you're going to get the laugh and timing the laugh and getting the character right . . . One of the reasons I love it is that I stop thinking about other things."
He also says he needs to remember his place when writing his columns, he says. "The reason I'm in a position of prominence is that at times people have found me funny. That's how I earned my right to be heard. If I'm not making people laugh, then I'm just some guy. The closest I've got to a religion that I'm sure of is that I know being funny is the greatest thing. It is the greatest aim anyone can have. It is the cleverest art form. It can do 10 things at once to someone's brain. It's wonderful. And the moment I've made someone laugh is the moment I'm proudest of. Even in this moment where I'm making a serious point about doing that, this is a comparative waste of life when I could be thinking of a funny thing to say." He laughs. "That's what I have to keep clawing myself back to and not become the boring middle-aged man who just wants to explain things to people."
Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy: And Other Rules to Live By is published by Guardian Faber Publishing