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Is Hungary the EU's first rogue state? Viktor Orban and the long march from freedom

As a student activist, Orban helped free Hungary from communism. As its prime minister, he practises “illiberal democracy” and praises Trump and Putin.

Young people crowd the restaurants and coffee bars of central Budapest. Tourists ride its trolleybuses and admire its magnificent neo-Gothic parliament building and the imposing Buda Castle across the Danube. It seems the model of a post-communist city, transformed by Hungary’s membership of the European Union.

But appearances can mislead. For an alternative view of today’s Hungary, drive 25 miles west – beyond the monolithic Soviet-era apartment blocks of the capital’s outskirts and the much newer but equally monolithic distribution centres of the multi­national retail chains, to the rural village of Felcsút where Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, grew up and still has a weekend home.

Orbán loves football and played semi-professionally in his younger days. After winning power for a second time in 2010, he had a 3,400-seat stadium built next to his house. Designed by the top Hungarian firm Doparum Architects, it has curvaceous tiled roofs supported by arched wooden columns. And it has a football academy that Orbán’s son, Gáspár, attended, and no fewer than ten practice pitches. Beyond them, another huge building – an indoor training facility, perhaps – is under construction, but my interpreter and I were shooed away when we approached.

The Pancho Aréna – named after the great Hungarian player of the 1950s and 1960s, Ferenc “Pancho” Puskás – cost €15m and was largely financed by donations from big Hungarian corporations after Orbán’s government passed a law making gifts to sports organisations tax deductible.

The only problem is that Felcsút has a population of just 1,800, and its team attracts perhaps a few hundred spectators. Not even the construction of a narrow-gauge railway line from a nearby town, financed with €2m of EU funds, has changed that. Few people use the train.

From the start, the project was controversial. György Varga, a stocky 60-year-old, was Felcsút’s thrice-elected mayor when the idea was mooted. Standing in the unkempt front yard of his son’s small house, he told me how he refused to sell the land on which the stadium stands because the sum being offered was too low. He said the Orbán government responded by passing a tailor-made law that barred people with tax debts, such as Varga, from serving as mayor (a claim the government denies).

For whatever reason, Varga lost his job. He could not find other work because, he believes, people were afraid to upset Orbán, and he had to sell his home. “I suffered because I didn’t want to play these games and [indulge] the great dreams of the prime minister,” he said.

Varga was replaced as mayor by a childhood friend of Orbán, Lörinc Mészáros, a lowly utility repairman. Mészáros gave the stadium the go-ahead, and his tiny company was given a share of the construction work. He began to receive other lucrative state construction contracts. In six years, he has become the fifth richest man in Hungary, worth an estimated €384m, according to a list compiled by the financial website napi.hu. His business empire spans hotels, tourism, real estate, agriculture, banking and publishing.

Mészáros now lives on a substantial property on the edge of Felcsút, replete with a gatehouse and a fleet of expensive vehicles, but we found him at his office in the village. A pale, paunchy man in his fifties, he happened to be coming out of a toilet in the hallway as we entered. “Go away!” he shouted when he realised I was a journalist. “What are you doing here? This is private property. Leave immediately – I’ll tell you nothing.” He slammed the door shut.

The Pancho Aréna – once described by an opposition MP as “a monument to corruption and megalomania” – symbolises what Hungary has become over the past seven years. Superficially, it appears to be a conventional democratic country – an EU and Nato member in which elections take place every four years, people can protest on the streets and state-sanctioned violence is rare. But foes of the “Viktator”, as Orbán is sometimes known, allege that he rules it in an increasingly autocratic and corrupt manner. They claim that his government rewards loyal oligarchs with state contracts, many financed by EU development funds, and that Orbán seeks to gag the independent media, packs key institutions that are supposed to be politically neutral with supporters, crushes dissent and vilifies opponents.

Detractors also say that Hungary brazenly flouts EU laws as Orbán – an admirer of Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan – practises “illiberal democracy”. “You signed up to the values of the union. You have violated every single one of them,” Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, declared during a European Parliament debate on Hungary’s conduct that Orbán attended in April. Indeed, some EU officials believe that if Hungary – the most economically and politically advanced of the eight formerly communist countries that gained membership of the European Union in 2004 – were to apply today, it would be rejected.

So how did a politician who began his career in the 1980s as a young student activist fighting Hungary’s communist regime, a champion of Western-style liberal democracy who helped bring down the Berlin Wall, become what he is today: the standard-bearer for Europe’s populist right who excoriates Brussels, courts Moscow, engages in Soviet-style cronyism and propaganda, erects fences to exclude migrants, threatens academic freedom and targets George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who did so much to help him fight Soviet repression?

“Do you want to be remembered as somebody who liberated your country from communism?” Verhofstadt asked during that debate in Brussels. “Or do you want to be commemorated as an eternal enemy of our open European democratic society?”

***

Viktor Orbán was born in 1963 to a father who was a lowly agronomist and Communist Party member and a mother who was a teacher. At high school, he joined the Young Communist League, but he was a natural rebel who grew long hair, loved Western films and music and questioned what he read in state-run newspapers.

Orbán’s disillusionment with the regime of János Kádár, Hungary’s Communist Party leader from 1956 to 1988, began during his year of national service. He hated the rules and was appalled when it appeared that his unit might be deployed against the Solidarity movement emerging in Poland in the early 1980s.

At Budapest’s elite Eötvös Loránd University, where Orbán joined the law college, students enjoyed relative freedom. Hungary’s “goulash communism” was milder than that of other Warsaw Pact countries: a means of appeasing the populace after Soviet tanks crushed its 1956 uprising against Moscow’s rule and killed several thousand protesters in the capital’s streets.

Orbán fell in with a group of independent thinkers who listened to Radio Free Europe, watched Easy Rider, read Jack Kerouac and J D Salinger novels and abhorred communism. They published a semi-subversive journal, held debates and invited outside speakers – reform-minded communists, veterans of the 1956 uprising, as well as George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier and Holocaust survivor who had established a foundation to promote freedom, democracy and civic society in Hungary.

Clever, combative and charismatic, Orbán became the president of the student council. In 1987, he invited Wacław Felczak, a renowned Polish historian, to talk about the Solidarity movement. Igor Janke, Orbán’s biographer, records that when he asked what Hungarian students should do, Felczak replied: ‘‘Form a party!”

The following year, Orbán and three dozen other students from various Budapest universities formed the Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats), or Fidesz for short. Soros provided material support including a photocopier, which was such a valuable means of spreading information in those days that the college authorities stored it in a locked room.

Soviet communism was already crumbling, and the Fidesz leaders were open about their “alternative, liberal and radical” movement. The Kádár regime questioned and warned them, but nothing more. Within a month, Fidesz had a thousand members. Other opposition groups sprang up. The regime responded by offering them round-table discussions on Hungary’s future governance.

The government also agreed to the highly symbolic public reburial in June 1989 of Imre Nagy, the former prime minister who was executed for supporting the 1956 revolution. A Fidesz speaker was invited to address the ceremony on behalf of the country’s youth. Standing on the steps of the Palace of Art in Budapest’s vast Heroes’ Square, before a crowd of 250,000 people and with millions more watching on television, the long-haired, unshaven, 26-year-old Orbán seized the chance to demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

“It needed courage to do that,” Gábor Fodor, a co-founder of Fidesz and Orbán’s former college room-mate, recalled when we met in his Budapest office. “Nobody knew if it would end peacefully or in violence.”

Some reformers feared that Orbán’s words would provoke another Soviet crackdown, but nothing happened. “After the funeral, it was the end of the communist regime,” Fodor said.

Youthful ambition: Viktor Orbán (left) in the late 1980s. Photo: cink.hu

That September, Orbán went to Pembroke College, Oxford, on a Soros Foundation scholarship. Timothy Garton Ash recalled, in a recent Guardian article critical of today’s “fascistic” Orbán, how “the bright-eyed, seemingly idealistic young Oxford Soros scholar sought me out in my rooms… to talk about democracy”. Within months, Orbán returned to Budapest to contest Hungary’s first free elections in March 1990.

Fidesz’s vigorous campaign featured a poster headlined “You choose!” above contrasting photographs of Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany’s Erich Honecker and a young couple embracing. Fidesz won 9 per cent of the vote and 22 seats. Orbán became an MP and party leader.

The Fidesz MPs were fresh, innovative, energetic and irreverent. Their popularity soared but, behind the scenes, the party fractured. Fodor and others favoured collaboration with the liberal Szabad Dem­okraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats) against the conservative government of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). “Orbán said, ‘No. This is a boxing match. There’s a red corner and a blue corner. You have to fight against your enemy and our main enemy is the liberal party because we’re in competition,” Fodor recalled.

István Hegedüs, another Fidesz founder and a Fodor ally, said that Orbán was becoming increasingly autocratic. “We experienced a shift in his personality and character,” he told me during an interview in his art deco apartment in central Budapest. “Instead of collective leadership… the party became more and more centralised. He became more and more authoritarian. We were seen as internal traitors.”

Fodor, Hegedus and several others eventually left Fidesz, and with the MDF government struggling to save Hungary’s post-communist economy from collapse Orbán moved Fidesz sharply to the right. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former Fidesz MP, believes that this shift was purely expedient. “If there was room on the left, he’d have gone there,” she told me over coffee near the parliament building. “He has this extraordinary drive for power, which we see in few other politicians in Europe.”

Orbán’s repositioning of Fidesz backfired. The media rounded on the party and it won just 7 per cent of the vote at the 1994 elections as a coalition of socialists (ex-communists) and liberals took power.

Undaunted, Orbán set out to rally the vanquished Hungarian right behind a platform of nationalist, Christian and family values. He commissioned surveys, consulted public relations experts and ordered party officials to swap their jeans for suits. “They changed their minds, their values and their political ideologies,” Fodor said of his former party. For Orbán, “the only thing that’s important in politics is to win”.

Though he had always hated the Roman Catholic Church for collaborating with the communists, Orbán now embraced religion. He was confirmed. He remarried his wife, Anikó Lévai, whom he had met at law college, in a church ceremony. Their five children were all baptised. “Whether it was a real change or just for the political image it was hard to tell,” Hegedus told me, but the strategy worked.

In 1998, Fidesz won the election with 26 per cent of the vote and 90 seats, and Orbán, aged 35, became prime minister. But his party narrowly lost to the better-prepared socialists four years later, and again in 2006. Orbán blamed those defeats on a hostile media and liberal establishment, and evidently never forgave them. “Orbán keeps track of who his enemies are, who has done him harm, and who he hates, just as he keeps track of those who – in his mind – have tried to destroy him,” Hegedus told another interviewer.

In 2010, Fidesz swept back to power following the global financial crisis and Hungary’s humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund. It won 52 per cent of the vote and two-thirds of the parliamentary seats – a “super-majority” that gave it absolute power. The Hungarian system allowed Orbán to do, in effect, whatever he wanted – and he did. He launched a new Hungarian revolution. Its goal was “the complete refurbishment and renewal of the country”, Zoltán Kovács, his spokesman, told me.

***

On Budapest’s Szabadság (Liberty) Square, a monument, erected by the government in 2014, shows a German imperial eagle preparing to strike the Angel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary. It is dedicated to “the victims of the occupation”.

The monument fails to mention that before the occupation of Hungary in 1944, the state had collaborated with the Nazis – hoping to regain the territories it had lost through the Treaty of Trianon following the Austro-Hungarian empire’s defeat in the First World War – and had sent thousands of Jews to their deaths.

Outraged by this “falsification of history”, Jewish and other civic groups have created a shrine in front of the monument using the photographs, suitcases, shoes and books of Hungarian Jews despatched to extermination camps, and stage regular protests there.

Listen to opponents of Orbán and you’ll hear that the monument is just one example of how his government is rewriting the past. Another is the House of Terror, a museum occupying the former headquarters of the Hungarian secret police in Andrássy Avenue, which stresses the evils of communism at the expense of Hungary’s shameful role in the Second World War. And last year’s 60th anniversary commemorations of the Hungarian Revolution ignored the leadership of the liberal intelligentsia and gave all of the credit to the protesters on the street.

Orbán has sought to rebuild his country’s national pride, whether it is based on truth or not. He has embraced ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Serbia who are descendants of the three million people stranded when the Trianon Treaty stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. He has spent hundreds of millions of euros on new football stadiums and academies, such as the one in Felcsút, in an effort to re-create Hungarian football’s glory days in the 1950s, when the national team beat England 6-3 and 7-1 in the space of six months. He is pumping money into Olympic sports, Hungary having once been a great Olympic nation.

Orbán’s government exhorts Hungarian mothers to have more children (marriage is restricted to heterosexual couples). The preamble to the newly rewritten constitution talks of “an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal” after the “moral decay” of the 20th century. It declares: “We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.”

Orbán has been content to trample on democratic norms to achieve that goal. In a notorious speech in 2014, he boasted of “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West” and held up China, Russia and Turkey as models of successful states.

Since 2010, his government has used its super-majority to push through changes to electoral law that manifestly favour Fidesz. It has filled the constitutional court with supporters, eroded the independence of the judiciary and put Fidesz loyalists in charge of key bodies – the prosecutor general’s office, the central bank, the election commission, a new media council – that are supposed to be politically neutral.

“Institutions have been packed with nominees and appointees with often questionable professional careers, very short CVs but very clear loyalties,” Miklós Ligeti, the legal director of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in Hungary, told me.

Evidence suggests that Orbán’s government also channels huge state contracts, sometimes accompanied by state bank loans, to a handful of friendly oligarchs, who, in turn, are expected to give the government financial and media support.

A study published in March by Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO, found that in six years, four oligarchs with close links to Fidesz won 401 public contracts worth more than €1.8bn. One of the four was Mészáros, Orbán’s childhood friend who shouted at me to go away when I sought him out in Felcsút. Another was Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, whose energy company, Elios Innovativ, secured contracts for street lighting in more than two dozen towns and cities across Hungary. “Politically organised high-level corruption has become a key feature of the regime,” the American NGO Freedom House declared in its latest Nations in Transit report.

“Hungary is a captured state. It is captured by a clique of business oligarchs and the political elite,” Ligeti said. He added that because the prosecutor general is a Fidesz loyalist, “There’s no hope that the prosecution service would thoroughly, reliably examine and investigate high-level corruption cases.”

At the same time, Orbán’s government has turned the state-owned media into what Gábor Polyák, the head of the NGO Mérték Media Monitor, calls a “propaganda machine”. It hobbles the independent media by withholding lucrative state advertising and using friendly oligarchs to buy hostile television stations, newspapers and websites.

In October, Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading opposition newspaper, was abruptly closed after exposing government scandals. A fortnight later, its parent company, Mediaworks, was bought by a business part-owned by Mészáros, who now controls an estimated 192 newspapers. “Pro-government outlets have come to dominate the market to an overwhelming degree,” Freedom House states. “We live in a sort of grey zone between democracy and dictatorship,” said István Hegedus, the Fidesz co-founder.

***

One morning, I visited Maria Schmidt, the director of Budapest’s House of Terror museum and a close friend of Orbán. In a top-floor office above the museum that would once have been occupied by a Communist Party intelligence chief, I asked Schmidt about Hungary’s approach to immigration.

In 2015, huge numbers of migrants and refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria, began crossing into Hungary from Serbia via Greece, because the EU failed to protect its external borders. Most wanted to continue westwards, Hungary having joined the Schengen Area in 2007. But rather than treating the refugees humanely and upholding their basic rights, Orbán’s government portrayed them as a threat to Hungary’s security, and to the ethnic homogeneity of a country where just 1.4 per cent of its ten million citizens are immigrants. The prime minister labelled the new arrivals a “Trojan horse of terrorism” and a threat to “Europe’s Christian culture and identity”. A 230-mile double-layered fence topped by razor wire was hastily constructed along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia.

“Because there are just ten million [Hungarians], we can’t accept that 10 per cent of our population are people we don’t know anything about or what their intentions are and can’t be integrated,” Schmidt told me, adding that some would inevitably be terrorists. “Also, in contrast to former colonial powers, we don’t have any sense of guilt towards them. We never colonised them, never bombed them. We have nothing to make up for.”

Orbán, she added, was being unfairly demonised for daring to oppose liberal orthodoxies about immigration and political correctness. He would be remembered as “one of the most significant and influential shapers of Europe”.

A frequent criticism of Orbán is that he creates enemies against whom he can rally his followers and portray himself as their saviour. After the refugee crisis, Brussels became Orbán’s principal enemy – not least for trying to force Hungary to accept 1,294 asylum-seekers under an EU quota system.

Hungary presently receives €5.6bn a year from the EU to spend on infrastructure, job creation and other projects, but Budapest was plastered with signs this spring bearing the slogan “Állítsuk meg Brüsszelt” (“Let’s halt Brussels”). A “national consultation” sent to every household asked questions such as: “In recent times, terror attack after terror attack has taken place in Europe. Despite this fact, Brussels wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. What do you think Hungary should do?”

Most recently, George Soros has become the government’s favourite punchbag, even though he was Orbán’s patron in the 1980s and has since given more than $400m to civic organisations promoting democracy, free speech, human rights, education and other worthy causes in Hungary. Orbán’s government spent $20m in July on posters and television advertisements showing Soros’s grinning face above the words: “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.” A spokesman for Soros, who is Jewish, called it a campaign “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours”.

The octogenarian philanthropist has come to symbolise the liberal ideals of internationalism, multiculturalism and free movement that Orbán considers such a threat to Hungary’s nationhood. “A common mistake among humanity’s rich and powerful is to believe that they can act like God and be immune from the consequences,” the prime minister declared in his state of the nation address in February. “They declare supposedly incontrovertible facts. They push utopias on to other countries and peoples. They decide what others can or cannot say, and what they can or cannot believe in.”

In April, the Orbán government provoked international outrage by steering legislation through parliament that threatens the future of Budapest’s Central European University – a prestigious institution that Soros founded in 1991 to train the future elites of Europe’s post-communist nations.

In June, Orbán had parliament rubber-stamp a law that will stigmatise NGOs receiving more than $24,000 a year from non-Hungarian sources, by forcing them to declare themselves “foreign-funded” on their websites and publications. That includes 50 or 60 NGOs funded by Soros’s Open Societies Foundation, some of which are quoted in this article. The law “seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power,” Goran Buldioski, the director of the Open Society Foundations in Europe, said.

Orbán routinely derides what he describes as the weak, sclerotic, out-of-touch leadership of the EU, but he welcomed Donald Trump’s victory in November’s US presidential election. He was also the only EU leader to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, for winning the disputed referendum in April that gave him sweeping new powers. And he is much closer to Vladimir Putin than he is to most of his EU counterparts. He has commissioned a nuclear power station to be built by Russia with a $9bn Russian loan. He has criticised EU sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Ukraine.

In a telephone interview after I returned to London, Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokesman, insisted that Orbán’s relationship with Putin was pragmatic, given Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy, and rejected the corruption and other charges levelled against the prime minister.

There was a “systematic effort on behalf of the opposition to discredit the government”, he said. “Most of the NGOs are behaving like primary political actors and that’s a real problem, especially as they are financed by a billionaire who has expressly stated he wants to become the political opposition in this country.”

***

On the May Day holiday, the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the EU, thousands of young Hungarians marched up the broad, leafy Andrássy Avenue. They waved EU flags and chanted, “Europe, not Moscow!” as they passed the imposing Russian embassy on their way to Heroes’ Square, where their leaders gave speeches. “In Hungary, a system of fear is being built on the Russian model,” one of the speakers told the crowd.

The anti-government demonstration was one of the many organised in recent months by a new, student-led movement called Momentum. The echoes of Orbán’s youthful rebellion against an authoritarian regime 28 years earlier are obvious. But so are the differences.

First, these young Hungarians are allowed to protest. Second, the bald fact is that outside the cosmopolitan Budapest, among older, more conservative and provincial voters, Orbán is far more popular than Kádár’s communist regime ever was and it won a sweeping re-election victory in 2014. The economy is healthy and Orbán’s unashamed nationalism, blunt speaking and brazen defiance of Brussels resonate in a country for which the 20th century was a litany of humiliations. Fidesz has a 20 to 30 per cent lead over its nearest rival in the polls. The opposition is fragmented. Orbán looks certain to win a fourth term next year.

In Brussels, 1,100 kilometres to the west, there is growing concern at Orbán’s hollowing out of Hungary’s hard-won democracy. The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Hungary for various alleged breaches of EU laws, and the European People’s Party, the umbrella group for conservative parties, has reprimanded Fidesz.

However, Orbán knows just how far he can push the boundaries. He knows that the crisis-beset EU would not dare invoke the ultimate sanction – Article 7 – which would suspend Hungary’s voting rights and push his country further into Russia’s orbit.

Meanwhile, the EU money keeps flowing, helping Orbán to strengthen the economy, build football stadiums and reward supportive oligarchs. “The EU is funding the first ‘managed democracy’ in Europe,” an astute British observer who lives in Hungary told me. “The money comes from Brussels. The money goes to Fidesz. And the project continues apace.”

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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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 and Kerry’s father Martin Mucklowe. Photos: BBC

Daisy and Charlie grew up with their parents, Paul and Jill (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, and pushed for a mockumentary format. Charlie and Daisy were given producer Simon Mayhew-Archer 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 Vicard, 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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue