Tony Blair. Picture: Miles Cole for the New Statesman
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Tony Blair: There is a “void at the heart” of Labour’s Brexit strategy

The former Labour leader on tech, the Middle East and the choice facing Labour – carry on with a hard Brexit, or ditch it and accomplish a radical programme.

When Tony Blair relaunched himself in 2016 – out went the consultancy for questionable oligarchs, in came a focus on big, vague Miss World-like topics such as “governance” and “peace” – his Institute for Global Change chose a provocative slogan. According to its website, it wants to make globalisation “work for the many, not the few”. Remind you of anyone? Yes, it’s the tag line used by Jeremy Corbyn during this year’s election – but it was taken from New Labour. Now, it seems, Tony Blair wants his soundbite back.

We meet at the institute’s offices in Bloomsbury, central London. There are acres of cream carpet, tasteful Middle East cityscapes, delicate Japanese screens and abstract sculptures that often reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to be awards from worthy international groups. The message is clear: Labour’s greatest election-winner might be a pariah in Britain – a recent appearance on The Andrew Marr Show was not advertised the night before, as guests usually are, because of security concerns – but his expertise is still valued abroad.

We talk about foreign policy – China, Iran, America – but it’s clear that Brexit and Labour are irresistible subjects. The great persuader still wants to win us over; perhaps more so since “Blairite” became a stronger term of abuse on the left than “Tory”. The 2017 model Blair is particularly interested in technology and the rapid pace of change, and his institute has just published a report recommending better regulation for social media, lifelong education for anyone whose job is lost to automation and a government department for digital matters. (Quite a departure for a man “named and shamed” in 2003 by the Conservatives as the only world leader without an email address.)

Personally, he remains agnostic about social media, which has helped “develop the era of the loudmouth”. While he praises Jeremy Corbyn’s success on Facebook and Twitter for diminishing the power of the right-wing press – no need for yacht trips with Rupert Murdoch for Jez We Can – he is quick to add: “Exchanging tweets is not the way to debate serious policy. It isn’t.” 

A former Middle East envoy for the Western powers, Blair diverges from the consensus view on Israel-Palestine, saying that he is cautiously optimistic about the two-state solution. “The Israelis and the Arabs actually have a huge strategic interest in common, and really both have the same essential obstacle to progress, which is what you might call Islamist ideology,” he adds. “So you’ve got two things happening: one is an anxiety that they share about Shia-inspired extremism on the one hand, through Iran, and Sunni extremism emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood through to Isis.”

He sees the rise of Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, as “the single most important thing that’s happened in the last few years in the Middle East”, describing him as a “reforming moderniser”. However, the prince has not yet dialled down the broader Sunni-Shia conflict, with many seeing Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen as a proxy war with the Shia regime in Tehran.

Iran “is a problem”, concedes Blair. Now a private citizen, he visits the Middle East twice a month and says that the key to understanding its problems is “to understand that it’s essentially one struggle. It’s about whether these societies that are full of religious tribal tensions with poor systems of government and institutions can move towards religiously tolerant societies with rule-based economies.”

How much, though, should other countries involve themselves in that process? I tell Blair I find it strange that David Cameron gets so little criticism for Britain’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which removed a dictator, created a power vacuum and led to widespread violence and lawlessness. Wasn’t removing Muammar Gaddafi repeating the mistake we made in Iraq? And if so, why does one create so much more anger than the other? “The simple answer on Libya is that we didn’t put troops on the ground,” he says, flatly.

I suggest that Britain’s current isolationism offers an easier moral accounting: we do not feel responsible for violence, sectarianism and famine in the countries in which we did not intervene, as if inaction were a neutral choice. “Absolutely,” he replies. “What we’ve allowed to happen in Syria is absolutely terrible… I mean, what’s extra­ordinary to me is that the destabilising influence of Iran around the region is colossal, and yet… progressives have sort of lined up, essentially, in a position of saying, ‘Look, you’ve just got to step back from the region,’ or saying, ‘Don’t interfere in Syria,’ when the interference from the other side in Syria is vast.”

The “other side” here means Russia, which has consistently backed the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. (Blair will not be drawn on whether he thinks Vladimir Putin also meddled with pro-Brexit propaganda, saying: “I don’t know, but I think we should find out.”) Yet the left’s uneasiness with intervention is surely not just a result of post-Iraq regret, but also a rejection of lining up unquestioningly alongside America, as if the old Cold War axis still holds.

Blair believed in the special relationship – and had good relations with Bill Clinton and George W Bush – and is hard-headed about keeping the faith while Donald Trump is in the White House. “The American president is the American president, so you can take whatever view you want to take, but in the end you’re going to have to have a relationship with him if you’re the British prime minister. That’s why I don’t attack Theresa May for having a relationship with Donald Trump. She’s got to.”

This articulation of realpolitik is now deeply unfashionable on the left, as is the assumption that a US-UK alliance can offer moral guidance to the rest of the world. Is the dominant strain in left-wing thought now anti-American and anti-imperialist? “Yes, it’s anti-West. It’s not anti-war, otherwise they’d be demonstrating out in the street against Assad, and they’re not.” 

***

Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn entered parliament in the same year, 1983, and their utterances from that period do little to distinguish them. Blair even paid homage to Euroscepticism, then the prevailing mood in Labour, writing in his 1983 election literature that the EEC had “drained our natural resources and destroyed our jobs”. It was Blair rather than Corbyn who wrote to Michael Foot in 1982 to say that he “came to socialism through Marxism” and that he agreed with Tony Benn that: “The right wing of the party is politically bankrupt.”

Over the ensuing decades, Corbyn opposed the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, while Blair became steadily more open about his own Europhilia. The New Labour leader became a devotee of “liberal humanitarian intervention”; the rebellious backbencher became the chair of Stop the War.

What Blair and Corbyn share is the ability to make a deeply unpopular case in the teeth of great opposition. In his 2010 autobiography, A Journey, Blair writes: “Labour Party politics following the defeat of 1979 was a bit like revolutionary France at the time of the Thermidorian Reaction, full of infighting, intrigue and bitter recrimination. The MPs were regarded by a large section of the party as sell-out merchants who had ‘betrayed socialism’.”

In Blair’s account, New Labour triumphed because he and his fellow MPs learned to argue their cause – and his inspiration was Corbyn’s early mentor Tony Benn. Blair writes of watching Benn speak in 1983 and being captivated by his confidence, sense of humour and the “thread than ran throughout the speech… The argument was built, not plonked down.” Still, the younger man decided at the end of the night that Benn was missing one thing: “He was the preacher, not the general. And battles aren’t won by preachers.”

As the Brexit process grinds on, many on the Remain side would be grateful for a general. But for the moment they must settle for preachers – the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, a smattering of liberal Tories and Labour backbenchers, and Blair himself, who seems re-energised by the cause.

He points to the “humiliating” fact that Britain was unable to get its chosen judge nominated for the International Court of Justice at the UN in November. (Christopher Greenwood’s failure in a run-off against the Indian nominee means that it will be the first time since the court was founded in 1946 that there is no British presence there.) The relocation of the European Medicines Agency – along with 900 jobs – from Canary Wharf to Amsterdam “makes me weep”, he says. “What’s happening is the most irresponsible abdication of leadership I have ever seen in my political lifetime. It’s just incredible.”

For Blair, Britain’s new isolationism shows our politicians’ inability to defend our alliances and to make the case that we are stronger when we co-operate than when we compete. “There is an insanity about this on the trade side,” he says. “I mean, the idea that Britain out of Europe is going to conclude a better trade deal with America, with China, with India…”

At a time of increasing protectionism, harder borders and anxiety over immigration, the mission statement of the Institute for Global Change is to defend the concept of a connected world. “The thing that depresses me about the state of the politics here today is our leadership isn’t explaining to people, ‘This is the way the world is changing,’” he says. “It’s like if you said to the owners of Manchester United and Manchester City, ‘From now on, you can only take your players from the Manchester metropolitan area,’ and they say to you, ‘Well, I’m afraid in that case, we’re not going to be winning the Premiership,’ and you say, ‘What, you’ve got no faith in Mancunians? You don’t believe in them any more?’ I mean, this is to confuse patriotism with a sort of delusion about the way the world’s changing.”

Brexit is a symptom of this disease. “We probably will get a deal of some sort,” he says. “But it’s going to be ugly and damaging.” He sketches out the six possible endgames: first, admit we made a mistake and stay in the EU. Second, negotiate reforms and stay in the resulting Europe. (“This would be my preferred option.”) Third, leave the political institution but stay in the single market and customs union: as a rule-taker but not a rule-maker.

“The fourth option is really where Theresa May and Philip Hammond and people are, which is that they want to leave Europe but still retain close ties to Europe,” he adds. “It’s a kind of ‘leave without leaving’ strategy. I personally think that’s incredibly difficult to negotiate, far more than they think at the moment.” The fifth option is to leave and “market yourself as non-Europe” – the course threatened by Hammond earlier this year and beloved by the libertarian wing of the Brexit movement. The sixth option is to leave with no deal at all.

***

Both Labour and the Conservatives appear to have ruled out the first three options. “And that, to me, is just another abdication of leadership,” Blair says. May triggered Article 50 “literally without knowing what we wanted”, so the fight now is to expand the options – “Otherwise, you’re left with four, five or six, and four is very difficult.” On the single market, Labour has a position very close to that of the Conservatives, maintaining that “access to” it is a viable substitute for membership. “Yeah,” says Blair. “I hope that the leader’s position is a tactic and not a strategy. We’ll see.”

Another open question is whether May is strong enough for her premiership to survive the negotiations, and then to get her deal through parliament. Blair believes her administration “is in more disarray and is more hopeless than any government I’ve ever seen”. Even the last days of the John Major era? “It’s sort of worse than that. Ken Clarke was chancellor. He was actually taking some reasonably sensible decisions… If you actually reflect on it, to have a prime minister and a chancellor driving through a project that they fundamentally believe is a mistake is a pretty weird mission.”

The difference between the mid-1990s and now, of course, is that back then Labour moved solidly ahead in the polls. At the election in June, Corbyn’s Labour was able to pick up the votes of frustrated Remainer swing voters, while holding on to its Leave-leaning northern English bedrock. Electoral logic therefore dictates that it’s better for Labour to appeal to skittish Leavers than to hard-core Remainers, since the collapse of the Lib Dems has left the latter group with nowhere else to go.

Blair dismisses this, arguing: “If Labour were really making an issue of Brexit in the right way… you could then lead the people who were Labour people that voted for Brexit to an understanding that Brexit’s not the answer to their problems.”

Underlying this is an acknowledgement that these are hard times for any party with a redistributive social programme. The November Budget included growth forecasts of under 2 per cent for the next two years; social mobility has stalled; real wages have not risen in a decade. No wonder there is a hunger out there for something more revolutionary than vanilla social democracy.

“The Labour Party…” Blair briefly pauses. “There is a void at the heart of its argument at the moment, which is the view that, ‘OK, we’ll do Brexit, but then we’re going to have this great radical programme,’ but actually the two are in conflict. It’s a very simple thing. For the health service, for example, in many ways you’ve got to choose between: do you want to be rebuilding the health service, or do you want to do Brexit?”

On social mobility, “The answers are not to get rid of immigrants, right?” – but to improve education and infrastructure. He says: “I don’t see in either party at the moment policies which would radically address those two issues.” Along with many in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), Blair is sceptical that abolishing tuition fees is the best use of £8bn, when it is non-graduates whose wages have been most remorselessly squeezed in the past decade. Unlike his ideological sympathisers in the PLP, however, he is willing to say that out loud: “If you want to spend [£8bn] on education, you should surely be concentrating on early years.”

Hardened by the battles of 1980s, Blair is less inhibited about challenging the left’s ideas than his intellectual heirs have been. (There are many older Labourites who lament that the years of New Labour hegemony created a soft generation who never learned to argue their corner.) Corbyn, for his part, has never stinted on criticisms of Blair – but has always stayed in Labour.

I end by telling Blair that I watched the 1997 election broadcast this year, on its 20th anniversary, and was struck by how happy Jim Callaghan and Neil Kinnock – who came from different Labour traditions – were to see a Labour prime minister going into Downing Street. Will he be happy to watch Jeremy Corbyn walk through that famous black door?

For the first time, the smooth delivery falters. The “look” count spikes. “Look, I don’t hide my disagreement, because I have a disagreement, and my disagreement is over what progressive politics should mean in the 21st century,” he says. “I struggle to see this as a project that will work in progressive terms… You know, but I may be wrong. Let’s see.”

But it would still be better than a Conservative government, right? “Look, I’ve always voted Labour and will always vote Labour, but I worry about aspects of the policy.” He thinks the mistake that Corbyn’s opponents made was to dodge the argument about whether the leader’s ideas were right by instead claiming that he was unelectable. (If so, it was a mistake that Blair made himself: during the leadership contest in 2015, he warned that Labour faced “annihilation” under Corbyn. Instead, it gained 30 seats this summer.) That acknowledgement defines his mission: researching and advocating a radical set of principles distinct from what he sees as Tory Brexitmania and Labour’s statism.

Warming to the theme, he adds: “It’s like when I hear people say the last Labour government was a neoliberal government. I mean, it’s ridiculous.” (His breezy confidence when making this point suggests that he is telling the truth when he claims not to look at Twitter.) “The minimum wage, massive investment in health and education. When we left office, levels of NHS satisfaction were the highest they’d been since the NHS began, apart from a brief period after it began.”

In a recent podcast interview with the former Obama adviser David Axelrod, Blair made a striking claim: if Clement Attlee woke up in modern Britain, he would be amazed by the change he would see everywhere – except, that is, when he walked into Whitehall. “Exactly,” he tells me. “Government should be completely re-engineered for today’s world, and it should be strategic and empowering, not big and controlling. And this is a progressive argument.”

Does anyone want to hear it – and from him of all people? “If you look back at that Labour government, OK, if you want to, just focus on Iraq… but there were masses of progressive things that were done.” Our time is up, and I pack up as he lists them: gay rights, constitutional reform, changing the House of Lords. “But we only managed to do them because we won,” he says. “And we won successively.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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“We write about everyone that pissed us off”: siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper on their hit hometown comedy This Country

The brother-sister duo behind the revolutionary BBC comedy on their childhood feuds, “the Mr Perkins scandal”, and stalking Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in Cirencester.

The Crown Pub, which sits in the heart of Cirencester’s town centre, has been a favourite among locals for hundreds of years. For siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper, it has particular personal resonance. “First drink. First date. First sick.” 28-year-old Charlie, in a bright orange Umbro sweater, leads us to a large wooden table hidden in a corner and stretches out his arms with pride. “There’s probably still microscopic particles of my sick in this table.”

It’s lunchtime, but as we’ve already descended into vomit chat, I get the ciders in – plus a lime and soda for 31-year-old Daisy, who is 37 weeks pregnant with her first child.

The sister and brother were born, raised and still live in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and it was their time in the town that inspired them to write the BBC Three cult comedy This Country. In it, they play cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe – unemployed, bored 20-somethings living in a tiny Cotswold village, where a lack of opportunities has pushed them into a state of arrested development.

Entire episodes revolve around arguments over who gets the top shelf in the oven, a local scarecrow festival, and Kurtan’s big decision over whether to study for a GNVQ in Swindon.

Both insist that truth is stranger than fiction: bizarre plotlines include a house getting “plummed” (think “egged”… but with plums), a schoolboy taking a wheelie suitcase to school every day, and a health drink pyramid scheme that sweeps the local community. All are based on real anecdotes from their hometown.

I tell them that the first season’s opening lines, which see Kerry and Kurtan show the camera crew all the different places in town they’ve spotted Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, made me cringe in recognition – I grew up in the Cotswolds too, and worked in a branch of Waterstone’s where Llewelyn-Bowen was a regular local celebrity. Charlie responds by whipping out his phone.

“I used to follow him round town, and just film him,” he says, laughing with sheer delight as he shows me not one but several videos of the Changing Rooms presenter roaming the streets of Cirencester in a long leather coat. “He’s in The Matrix! Wait for this gust of wind that takes his coat... Look at him! Who does he think he is? Brilliant.” Daisy lets out an exasperated, “Fuck’s sake…”

Nostalgic memories of Cirencester and its characters are not just a key part of This Country, it’s also clear they form a kind of shared language for Daisy and Charlie. During our chat, they argue over the details of specific childhood memories.

“Remember when we went to go see Grandad in his cottage?” Daisy asks. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve just seen my first ghost.’ We said, ‘Well, what’d he look like?’ And all he would say was, ‘He ‘ad a face on him like he was damned for all time.’” The two fall about laughing. “What does that mean? What does that even mean?!”

Daisy, too, has seen a ghost. Charlie reminds her of that with delight. “She did! She came back one night going, ‘I’ve just seen a ghost.’ I was like, ‘Really? Well, what’d it look like?’ She was like, ‘Well, I saw it on the side of the motorway. It was a man… and it had a high-vis jacket on.’” He cackles. “Like, of course that’s not a ghost! That’s the fucking maintenance guy!”


Daisy and her real dad, Paul Cooper, as Kerry’s father Martin Mucklowe. Photos: BBC

Daisy and Charlie grew up with their parents, Paul and Gill (who met at 16 and have been together ever since), in Cirencester town centre, “near the big Tesco”. Daisy, the wilder, older child, was skipping school and sneaking out to clubs at 13. Charlie, three years younger, was quieter, staying at home playing Theme Hospital and Football Manager for hours on end.

Like most siblings, they found cruel and unusual methods of winding each other up. Daisy recalls swinging Charlie’s dead goldfish in his face, seconds after solemnly promising their father she would break the news to him gently. She would persuade him that the birthmark on the left side of his neck was, quote, “a city for lice” – leading a panicked Charlie to try and scrub it off with a flannel. Or, perhaps most elaborately of all, she’d wake June-born Charlie on a crisp November morning excitedly wishing him happy birthday, pointing towards the balloons she had blown up and left on the stairs.

“I used to be like, well, it has to be my birthday – there’s balloons on the stairs!” Charlie says. “I would run down to the living room expecting to see a pile of presents, and there’d be nothing there. By the time I’d turn round, she’d be like, ‘Ha ha! You fell for it, you little dweeb!’ You used to be evil. That is evil! Isn’t it?”

They still argue on set. When our interview finishes, some bickering flares. (“You always undermine me!” “No I don’t – you undermine me!”) But, light bullying aside, their memories belie the great affection they had for one another: Charlie would “worry to death” about Daisy returning home safe, Daisy left smarting when she couldn’t impress her younger brother by smoking. “I always wanted him to look up to me, and he never did.”

And even when they weren’t getting on, their shared sense of humour kept them banded together. 

“What connected us, from a such young age, was always funny stuff,” Charlie recalls. “We could hate each other, but we would find the same things funny. It was so important.”

The pair would make stop motion films and home videos together, “that would always start out really serious, and then just descend into pathetic, silly shit”. They’d bond over the weirdness of B movies they found in their local video shop – from Critters to Meet the Applegates.

Their parents were unusually happy for Daisy and Charlie to hang back from school and work to do things they enjoyed more. Daisy remembers their Dad (who plays Kerry’s detached, criminal father Martin Mucklowe in This Country) watching the 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock, about a group of overworked schoolkids skipping lessons to participate in a local Battle of the Bands competition, and seeing him moved to tears.

“He was crying at the end. He turned around to me and my brother, and he said, ‘That’s the evidence, kids. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’ He was that inspired by the film!” she says. “You grow up thinking what your parents say is gospel. And then you start to think, ‘Hang on a second. Our Dad is completely fucking bonkers.’”

Neither thrived at their local comprehensive, Cirencester Deer Park School, which Charlie calls “the most uninspiring place”. They weren’t popular with the teachers, and say that despite the success of the show, they haven’t been invited back. “Not after the Mr Perkins scandal.”

Ah, the Mr Perkins scandal. In the first series of This Country, Kerry and Kurtan hear that their old teacher, Mr Perkins, is dead. Shocked into silence, there’s a long pause. Then we cut to them shaking up a bottle of Lambrini and chanting “He’s dead!” around the town in celebration. Mr Perkins was the name of a real teacher at Deer Park – the school did not see the funny side. Um, he’s not actually dead, is he? “No, he’s not dead,” Charlie says. “He is a twat.”

“But yeah, they said the show was disrespectful to Mr Perkins.” He pauses for a moment. “Which it was, but–” He and Daisy burst into giggles.

“It was!” Daisy laughs. “Massively! But fuck Mr Perkins.”

“He’s a prick,” says Charlie, leaning into my dictaphone. “I don’t want you to change the name, because I want him to read that. That was quite therapeutic. That’s the thing: writing about a town that you grew up in means you can write about all these fuckers that piss you off.”


Kerry and Kurtan celebrate the death of Mr Perkins.

I first meet Daisy and Charlie at their office, a small room above the Corinium Museum (which exhibits locally found objects of historical importance); we swap anecdotes about the people and places we have in common as we climb the narrow stairs.

Their workspace is at once bare and cluttered – a single decorative plate and a lonely looking teapot sit on an empty set of shelves, but scripts and notes are piled on the desk, as well as a taxidermy magpie wearing an Innocent smoothie bobble hat. Framed fan art and Kerry and Kurtan finger puppets and dolls are perched on the mantelpiece. A newspaper board poster, proclaiming “RAVE REVIEWS FOR COTSWOLD COMEDY”, is stuck somewhat lopsidedly to an otherwise blank patch of wall. “I nicked that,” Charlie says happily.

Ideas for the show first began to form when Charlie, a recent drop-out of the University of Exeter, was living with Daisy while she studied at RADA – sleeping on the floor of her “crappy halls in the centre of London”. They had even less money than most students, thanks to a sweat-inducing financial cock-up Daisy, still the less responsible sibling, made in her second year. When she first moved to London, she lived with a boyfriend, and when they split up RADA made arrangements for her to move into their halls, but asked her to find a cheap hotel for a week to fill the gap. Daisy paid £300 up front for a week’s stay in central London. “It was this penthouse suite in Marble Arch. And I thought, ‘This is really weird. This is too good to be true! But this is great!’” When it was time to check out, the hotel informed her that £300 was just the deposit. “The hotel was actually three thousand pounds – for the week. So my student loan was all gone. I had no money to pay the rent, to get any food, anything.”

The pair ended up with about £20 a week to live on between them. Charlie was in charge of the finances, only letting Daisy do the weekly shop once. “She came back with a bottle of wine, a packet of fags and Tom Hanks’ Big on DVD. I thought, how am I gonna eat that?”

With no money, no computer and no internet, the two spent all their time together, bored and homesick. One of their main two sources of entertainment was a portable DVD player, which they’d use to repeatedly watch the 1993 BBC Beatrix Potter animation The Tailor of Gloucester, the bizarre story of an aging tailor struggling to make a wedding outfit for the Mayor of Gloucester by Christmas Day, with the help of several mice and his reluctant cat. (This sends me into frenzied delight, as it’s a firm family favourite in my own house.) “We loved that, because it was twee, and it reminded us of home,” Charlie says. “Why is the Mayor of Gloucester getting married on Christmas Day morning?” Daisy asks. “Who’s gonna turn up? Why is this guy making The Mayor’s marriage waistcoat all on his own? And why is his cat such an asshole?”

The other was swapping anecdotes from home. “We’d talk about people we knew from Cirencester,” Charlie explains. “We’d try and make each other laugh about, you know, what they’d be doing that night or what they’d be having for their Christmas lunch.”

Those stories eventually turned into an idea for a TV show. When Daisy graduated in 2010, the two moved back home to their parents’ house in Cirencester, which was no less bleak: their Dad had been made redundant, the family downsized to a two-bed house. “So all the money was going on rent, and we’d have no money left over for food, so we’d go through all the cupboards,” Daisy tells me. “There was literally just tins of prunes from like... We just had to make meals out of what there was.”

She recalls the anxiety of the financial gamble of spending the family’s last £9 on a coach to London for auditions. With no money for the tube, she would walk from Victoria to auditions in far corners of London – in broken shoes, held together with sellotape.

Looking back, this desperate period was key to the show’s success. “We had nothing else to do, no plan B, we just had to pour all that anger and frustration into the writing,” Charlie says. “If we had had money, we would never have done it.”


Daisy and Charlie as Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe

It’s only a two-minute walk between the pub and the Coopers’ office – but that’s still long enough for them to be stopped by affectionate fans. “How long you got, Dais?” one shouts, pointing at Daisy’s considerable bump. “Oooh – it’s coming!”

The road to getting the show made was long – the first series was six years in the making – and not without diversions. There was the pilot that was a “Glee-type version” of the show. There was the production company who envisioned the show as a country bumpkin version of Lee Mack’s Not Going Out. There were those who wanted to get other actors in to play the lead roles.

Then, Shane Allen, the Controller of Comedy Commissioning for the BBC, picked up the show. Charlie and Daisy were given producer Simon Mayhew-Archer, who pushed for a mockumentary format, and director Tom George to work on the full series. Daisy explains that the four of them work together, in Cirencester, on plots, character arcs and episode structures right from the beginning stages of writing. “They do feel like brothers, really, don’t they?”

Daisy and Charlie’s lives have changed considerably since This Country was made. At home in Cirencester, they’re both regularly recognised. Daisy tells me of her surprise when she was seated next to Kim Cattrall at an awards dinner, and the pinch-me moment of her hero Kathy Burke tweeting praise for the show. But they insist that practically and financially, their lives aren’t totally transformed.

“People think, once they see you on TV, that you’re a millionaire,” Charlie says. “We’re fairly comfortable for now.”

Daisy says the biggest change is “being able to relax”. She lives with her partner, landscape gardener Will Weston, who she lovingly describes as “a big oaf”. (Particularly observant fans might remember the first episode’s scarecrow festival is held in aid of “The William Weston Foundation”.) Their first child, a girl named Pip, was born on 4 January.

Charlie still lives with his dad, his mum, who he describes as “a mad bird woman”, and “all the parrots and the finches and the budgies”. “She’s literally just adopted a parrot called Sidney that’s got one eye, one leg, and has never eaten anything other than sunflower seeds his entire life.” Daisy says.


Kerry and the Vicar, Rev. Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), on the Vicar’s allotment

Beyond Daisy, Charlie, and Paul Cooper, much of the cast are locals: Kerry and Kurtan’s irritating friend Slugs is played by the real aquaintance they based the character on, after long, boring conversations with him in Poundland drove them up the wall. (In real life, Charlie insists, “He’s the same – annoying.”) For the second series, they hosted open auditions in the Cotswolds. 

Did they ever fear that the show’s focus on two fairly clueless working-class characters would feed into stereotypes about “lazy” poor people? “Not really,” Charlie says. “I think we always approach the show from truth.”

Both acknowledge that, especially in comedy, working-class characters are almost never written or played by people with much experience of financial hardship, or the areas where they’re meant to be from. “That’s when it becomes a stereotype. With our show, it’s all about attention to detail, and being so specific with the characters to the point where we’re working out what their favourite film would be, or what they have for their lunch. As soon as you’re not doing those things, the character’s not 3D, it’s not real. You have to be here to write the show.”

The four had five months to write the second series – nothing compared to the six years they spent honing the first series. Charlie and Daisy both felt the pressure. “You’re worried you’re not going to be able to produce the work that you did in the first series,” Daisy says. “And you just totally forget how to write.”

“The first series was like a perfect storm – it was so spontaneous,” Charlie reflects. “And then, for the second series, you’ve got to work out what made that series so good.”

The new series deepens our understanding of the show’s major characters. We learn more about which relationships are most important to the characters – we get a greater sense of the importance of Kerry’s relationship with her dad, and Kurtan’s relationship with the village vicar. Kerry even gets a secret admirer who sends her bizarre, submissive letters. “Which is actually based on an ex-boyfriend from uni who used to send me letters about him being an inanimate object,” Daisy explains.“‘All I want to do is be your footstool and you’ll put your feet up on me and we’ll sit there watching Masterchef.’ It was really weird. Mum found an old letter from him that said, ‘I just want you to tie me to a tree in the forest and leave me there.’ How is that sexy? How does someone possibly get off on that?”

We learn more about what they actually want from their lives (beyond a SodaStream). We also learn about the time Kerry started a local fight club and gave herself a black eye. And we finally learn where Kurtan gets all his No Fear t-shirts. Most obvious of all in series two is Kerry and Kurtan’s genuine sense of belonging in the Cotswolds. They love where they’re from. It’s clear that Daisy and Charlie do, too.

“It takes a long time to realise that you do,” Charlie says. “I was so embarrassed about being from the Cotswolds. I used to say that I was from London. Until you move away, and then you start looking back and you appreciate it.

“It took us a long time to be comfortable with where we’re from. Now, I don’t have any desire to move. I’ll stay in the Cotswolds.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special