Moss becomes boss

 

Richard Ayoade, who shares some of the shyness of the lovable eccentric he plays in The IT Crowd, has turned his hand to feature directing with Submarine, a coming-of-age tale set in Wales. The burning question: how Moss-like is he? DONALD CLARKEpries

WHAT’S WRONG with those people who think Hugh Laurie is really a doctor or Sarah Michelle Gellar genuinely kills vampires? These lunatics do seem to exist. Whenever such stars appear on chat shows, they invariably drag out anecdotes about being mistaken for the characters they play. It’s all very worrying.

That said, Maurice Moss, the eccentric given flesh by Richard Ayoade in The IT Crowd,Graham Linehan’s first-class sitcom, is so fully realised you can’t help but suspect that shards of the actor’s inner being are on display. Moss, one half of a harassed IT department, is the hilarious, lovable embodiment of contemporary geek culture. Adopting rectilinear hair-parting and rigid posture, Ayoade offers us a sitcom character as precisely defined as Norm from Cheers, Manuel from Fawlty Towers or Cartman from South Park.

“It’s all Graham,” Ayoade says in his quiet, polite voice. “I can take slim credit for the character. There were people I knew who had qualities of that character. Though originally, Graham thought I was more like Moss than I myself thought. I suppose I have always been in that nerd camp. I wasn’t coming in as this suave person.”

Do people really expect him to be able to fix their modem? “Not really. Aside from anything else, if you did have a problem I don’t think you’d really want to call that particular department. Would you?”

Like Moss, Ayoade appears to be a shy fellow. Whereas the character exhibits an aggressive enthusiasm for his various obsessions, the actor comes across like a well-mannered pupil who – for reasons he cannot fathom – has been summoned to the headmaster’s office for unprecedented chastisement.

“I do feel a bit awkward in interviews,” he says with an actual foot shuffle. “I have a difficult time taking an objective view of myself and commenting on that.”

He’ll have to get used to it. After a decade appearing in such shows as The Mighty Boosh,Garth Marenghi’s Darkplaceand Nathan Barley, Ayoade has just directed his first film. Submarine, based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, is a delightful, sad coming-of-age story set in a damp corner of Wales. Craig Roberts stars as a teenager who, convinced he is some sort of literary genius, sets out to woo the most popular girl in school. An unhappy series of reversals soon follows.

Ayoade has directed for television and was behind the camera for several Arctic Monkeys videos – Alex Turner of that band provides songs for Submarine– but directing features is an entirely different job. Or is it? “The technical requirements are minimal,” he says. “Orson Welles said something to the effect that all he knew about directing Gregg Tolland [cinematographer of Citizen Kane] taught him in an afternoon. That sounds a bit hubristic. But it’s like chess. It’s easy to learn the game. It’s difficult to get good at it.”

Getting back in to autobiographical mode, one can’t help but assume there is something of the director in the young protagonist. The child of a Norwegian mother and a Nigerian father, Ayoade spent his early years in down-at-heel Elephant and Castle, an unlovely corner of south London. He must have been the sort of character who kept Jean-Paul Sartre tomes in his blazer pocket, surely. I certainly can’t imagine him as the class bully.

“My first school was quite tough. I lost two teeth on the very first day. I think that’s just because I was new. That was the prime insult.

“What I liked about Joe Dunthorne’s book was the way it talked about that thing where you keep quiet at school about reading books and so forth. Otherwise, you might be mercilessly beaten. The first rule is to destroy any sense of learning at school. You don’t want to appear to be a smartarse. That’s a fast track to a beating.”

At any rate, he was smart enough to secure a place at Cambridge. He studied law but, like so many other future celebrities at that university, quickly got lured towards the Footlights comedy club. Indeed, he eventually became president of the society. Decades pass, comedy fashions change, but, in the years since Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller emerged from Footlights, the organisation has continued to exert a weirdly disproportionate influence on British show business. Other prominent Footlights presidents include Clive James, Clive Anderson, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie, Sue Perkins, and (more unexpectedly) Peter Bradshaw, chief film critic for the Guardian.

“I can’t say why that persists. Enough people go through it for there to be some sort of numbers game. You might get the similar correlations if you look at all the people coming out of Bradford. There are many who go through and don’t do anything later. But yes, there are unfair privileges and advantages in being in a comedy club that has some reputation. You can get bookings.”

So how do you get to be president? “Nobody else stood. Nobody else wanted to do it. Comedy is what you do when everything else fails. David Beckham doesn’t go around saying ‘I wish I was a comedian’.”

He is overstating the case, surely. Aside from anything else, he hadn’t had time to fail as a lawyer.

“Well, I wasn’t doing that well at law either. If you’re good at school you can, without thinking, end up in that sort of stream. There’s never a notion you won’t do A-levels. I was – and remain – massively unrebellious. I’d seen Perry Mason on TV and thought: why not?”

Buoyed up by his Footlights experiences, Ayoade dabbled in stand-up, but his heart was never quite in it. Furrowing his brow, he explains that he couldn’t quite deal with the way a comic must both be himself and live out a manufactured onstage persona. Ever the buttoned-up Englishman, he couldn’t quite cope with the need to deconstruct his own character.

Still, he fast found his feet as a writer and a comic actor. Many comedy fans will have first encountered him as a supporting player in the comedy revue Garth Marenghi (variously subtitled Fright Knight, Netherheadand Darkplace). Later an excellent TV show, the unclassifiable comic oddity that won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, starred Matthew Holness as a supernaturally pompous horror writer modelled – I’m guessing here – on such pontificators as Clive Barker and James Herbert.

“The strange thing is we’ve never done interviews about that show,” he says cautiously. “I know this sounds Johnny Deppish and arsey, but it feels improper to talk about it. Not least because it would be ridiculous to talk about a show that shows how ridiculous people are when they talk about themselves.”

In the early part of last decade, Ayoade established himself as one of those comic actors you like, but to whom you can’t quite put a name. He lurked in Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s series Nathan Barley. He played various roles in various incarnations – radio, stage, telly – of The Mighty Boosh.

But it took The IT Crowdfor him to become properly (if not majorly) famous. The series was not an immediate hit. But, over the past five years, it has gradually developed a fanatical following.

If you were being pernickety, you could argue that the series offers an unfairly cliched portrait of IT. Moss and Roy (the superb Chris O’Dowd) hammer away at video games, fail with women and spend daytime in a dingy basement. The IT community must be outraged.

“I think it has never, ever really tried to present itself as a documentary,” he says with a straight face. “It tends very squarely towards silliness. From what I can tell people doing these jobs like it more than most. I don’t think any of them are losing sleep over it.”

That’s a relief. It wouldn’t do if IT workers were organising hate campaigns against such an agreeable fellow. But the success must, surely, have caused him some problems. I would imagine he now gets gawped at when buying milk. Random strangers must expect him to be funny.

“The worst thing in the world is being asked to tell a joke. Actually, for some reason I think people don’t expect me to be funny. So we’re on the same page.”

And he can walk the streets unmolested? “I can get out of my house fairly easily,” he jokes. “I am not Justin Bieber. That’s something I have to remind myself of daily.”

Submarineis out next Friday (March 18)