Comedian Kieran Hodgson on making Brexit funny – by going back to the Seventies

Comedian Kieran Hodgson
Kieran Hodgson stars in '75 at the Soho Theatre

There have been countless articles about who should play the next James Bond, but here’s a casting suggestion you might not have heard before: Kieran Hodgson ought to be the new Q.

The 30-year-old actor and comedian practically quivers with intelligence. Much like the spymaster’s gadgets, his intricately engineered one-man shows look dull and ordinary on first glance – but then spring into action to reveal something devastatingly sharp.

Hodgson has earned a hat-trick of Edinburgh Comedy Award nominations for shows on such unpromising topics as professional cycling, classical music and now – in his critically acclaimed ‘75, currently playing in the West End – the 1975 European referendum.

In an hour peppered with spot-on political impressions that hark back to the heyday of Mike Yarwood, Hodgson tells the story of Britain’s shifting relationship with Europe. It's filled with colourful details, right down to the jumper he wears on the poster – a replica of the one Margaret Thatcher wore while urging her supporters to say “Yes to Europe”.

“My shows tend to be tediously educational,” he tells me, tongue very much in cheek. “I think it’s because my parents are both teachers.” Bright-eyed and loquacious, Hodgson has the air of an eager young university lecturer. He’s probably best known for his stand-out role as the perky Gordon in the BBC Two sitcom Two Doors Down, but it’s stage-shows such as '75 that have won him the adulation of critics.

Kieran Hodgson (left) in Two Doors Down Credit: BBC

The show is catnip for politics junkies, though Hodgson – who comes across as almost pathologically self-deprecating - insists he isn’t a political comedian. “I’m a dithering bookworm,” he says, “and that’s not a very good recipe for sharp, biting, punchy political comedy.”

Given the current wrangling over Brexit, the choice of subject feels timely, even inevitable. What’s surprising, though, is Hodgson’s insistence on seeing both sides. “The show is more an exploration than an act of persuasion,” he says, before immediately scolding himself. “What a horribly pretentious sentence!”

The show begins with an argument between himself (as a young, artsy, pro-leave Londoner) and his mother (a middle-aged, northern, working-class Brexiteer). But this, it transpires, is a pose. Playing a slightly more naive version of himself, over the course of the show Hodgson dives into history books to learn “where Brexit came from” – and finds his point of view changing with every book he reads.

“I’m a real equivocator,” he tells me, sheepishly. “I find it very hard to reach a strong opinion on anything, because I always assume that my knowledge is incomplete. I don’t seek to persuade anyone of anything in the show, other than a very Christian message of trying to love people who disagree with you.”

Margaret Thatcher modelling her 'Nine Flags' EEC jumper in Parliament Square, London, 1975

It makes him a rare figure on the comedy landscape, where most comedians – like most of the public as a whole – have passionate feelings about Brexit, whether vehemently for it (eg Geoff Norcott) or against it (eg Bridget Christie).

It’s no surprise that Hodgson won a fan in the playwright James Graham – author of the similarly even-handed Seventies political drama This House, and Channel 4’s recent Brexit: The Uncivil War. Much like Graham, Hodgson researches his material with the fervour of a true perfectionist. Making '75, he says, was “a two-year obsession – to read all the books, work out the story, put it on stage, make it funny… and then redraft it 10 times.”

In a sense, it has been the work of a lifetime; Hodgson had been fascinated by Seventies politics for years. “It was amazing to look back on a time of national power-cuts, when strikes could bring the country to a halt, when you’d have two elections in a year – and you had these strange things called 'minority governments'," he adds, dryly. 

Researching the show, he was surprised to learn about “sneaky things that the Europeans did,” such as “to hold off letting us in until the common fisheries policy and common agricultural policy were all arranged - because we would always be more of a contributor than a receiver.” Moments like that, says Hodgson, “take the edge off this sanctified view of the European Union that some remainers might have.”

Immersing himself in the Seventies politics helped him to understand how our involvement in Europe belies easy left-right generalisations. In particular, Hodgson points to the moment in 1971 when 69 Labour MPs (led by Jenkins) defied the party whip to support a pro-Europe Tory bill. “Europe cuts straight across our normal, political line in this country,” he says. “It still does today.”

Edward Heath, arriving at the 1967 Conservative Party Conference Credit: Anthony Marshall

He began tinkering with the idea of a Seventies show before the EU referendum was announced. “Initially it was going to be a sort of biopic of Edward Heath - in my head it was going to be like the British Hamilton,” he says. When the historic sex allegations against Heath emerged, however, the former Prime Minister became even less of an appealing box-office draw.

Nonetheless, Hodgson believes the likes of Heath still have more comic mileage for an impressionist than most modern British politicians.

“I occasionally do impressions on Radio 4 and 4 Extra, and it’s very tricky,” he says. “I have a little pet theory - it’s probably bunkum - about why the people I’m taking off in '75 tended to be these big, theatrical characters. It’s because they came from a political culture where you were used to addressing a full room of people, unamplified. There’s footage of Jenkins and Heath and Powell taking on a full victorian theatre’s worth of people who disagree with them and are yelling at them.

“Today, the intimacy of a radio or TV interview creates a generation of politicians who are not used to being extravagant. I had a nightmare trying to do George Osborne, David Cameron – what do you grab on to?”

Of course, sending up dead politicians that younger audience members may never have heard of has its own difficulties. “The challenge I faced with these characters was to make them funny if you knew nothing about them beforehand,” he says.

“At the time, an impression of Roy Jenkins would accentuate the fact that he couldn’t pronounce his Rs – Dennis Skinner used to call him 'Woy of the Wadicals'. If you don’t know who Jenkins is, just being a man who can’t pronounce his Rs is not particularly funny – it almost seems cruel. The Spitting Image effect only works when there’s at least a grain of something that everyone knows.”

Roy Jenkins: 'Woy of the Wadicals' Credit: Srdja Djukanovic

He researched their personal lives to create characters with more depth - and often found himself warming to them. Having grown up just outside Huddersfield, he was drawn to Harold Wilson - particularly on learning that (like Hodgson) the PM was once a scout leader. “Going beyond the immediate impression, you find things that make them human - and I think those humanising elements are what people today latch onto, more than Heath’s sailing or Wilson’s Gannex mac.”

After spending so much time nattering about the 1975 referendum, I feel it's only fair to ask his thoughts on what he calls the "cover version". 

“I’m in two minds about the necessity and wisdom of the referendum in 2016," he says. "The very act of holding it seems not quite compatible with our normal democratic system, but at the same time I also think it was a question a generation had the right to be asked. Our European role is a question that will come every generation, and it is important for a country to have the opportunity to define itself – and refine itself when things change.”

That said, Hodgson doesn’t think things have changed enough since 2016 to make a “People’s Vote” worthwhile. “I think having another one at this point would diminish the prestige of referendums in total,” he says. “If we are going to have them, they should be used sparingly, a s an instrument to resolve an issue that is supposedly too big for the parliamentary system. ​Although” – and here he breaks into a laugh – “that’s very close to me having an opinion on something!”

And that, for Hodgson, is a cardinal sin. He hates the idea of a “hot take” on a topical issue – and thinks that is part of his show’s appeal. “It’s a frozen take! It’s a very mealy-mouthed take on something that happened decades ago. In a world of pithy reactions to things on Twitter, maybe it’s nice to have that as a contrast.”

Kieran Hodgson: ’75 is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100, sohotheatre.com), until Feb 2. He will be touring nationally from March 8. Details: kieranhodgson-tour.com