Miles Jupp sighs at the notion that he’s going to be incessantly questioned on his boarding school experiences and why he’s likely to send his five children to a comprehensive, when we meet to discuss his debut novel, History.
“Do you think all the time I’m promoting this book I’m going to have endless conversations about boarding schools and private education? Oh God…” says the comedian and actor, who starred in family saga The Durrells and comedies The Thick of It, Outnumbered and Rev, as well as presenting The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4 for four years.
It does seem likely though, since his book centres on Clive Hapgood, a hapless history teacher at a posh private school who faces a crisis as the job – and all its class issues – starts to threaten his marriage and family life. It features incidents of bullying, the pressures of teaching and Clive’s inability to deal with life when he falls victim to an allegation of assault from a pupil who he sends out of class for misbehaving, throwing his schoolbag after him.
But far from being a depressing read, Jupp peppers his prose with caustic humour, wryly observing the power that those who are paying for education wield over those who are providing it.
The genial comedian knows his story’s backdrop well, having attended boarding school from the age of nine to 18. “You don’t really know anything different, so you don’t assess it at the time. It’s like being at university a bit earlier,” he says of boarding school. “All the people you get on with are near you all the time, as well as the people you don’t get on with. In retrospect, it’s quite an intense experience, but also a lot of fun.”
Now, with five children of his own, aged between 12 and six, he says lockdown at his home in Monmouthshire has helped him re-evaluate his life. “There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘What are we going to live off?’ but I’ve been able to get bits of work. But for us it’s been really good to spend a lot of time together.
“I used to hurl myself all over the place and take all the work that was offered because I thought I had to, and now I wonder if I did have to, and I think the most important thing is being with everyone – so I’ve done a lot of re-evaluating.”
That’s not to say it was all tranquil and Jupp admits: “I’m not going to pretend that home schooling is easy, and at times that got a little bit fraught.”
Having seven people – Miles, his wife Rachel, and the kids – stuck in the house had its moments, he agrees. “Sometimes you’ve got to open the windows and sometimes you have to ask everyone to please stop shouting.”
The son of a minister of the United Reformed Church, Jupp loved comedy from an early age. “I remember a good friend of mine saying at school that I was funny, when we were about 10 or 11, and it wouldn’t have been something that occurred to me. I did waste a lot of time trying to be funny in lessons, but it was really liking comedy that made me want to do it. I would watch any comedy on TV, or listen to it on the radio.”
He started his stand-up career while at Edinburgh University (where he studied divinity), attending workshops and gigging in pubs and clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he played on being posh and dressed in tweed. “I felt total exhilaration when it went well, and then thought ‘How can this happen?’ when it didn’t,” he remembers. “I started at 20 when I still had some of that leftover imaginary confidence. Other comedians were friendly and helpful.”
Frankie Boyle was often the compere, while he vied in comedy competitions with the likes of Alan Carr and John Bishop. “My comedy used to be character-based, where I’d wear tweed and corduroy. I’d be more English than people would expect.”
His very English persona continued with acting jobs. Despite not going to drama school, he clinched the role of jolly inventor Archie in the children’s show Balamory while still at university and has never looked back.
Having since appeared in the ITV period drama The Durrells as Cousin Basil, as well as The Crown on Netflix and Howards End for the BBC, does he feel he’s been pigeonholed into posh roles? “Well, yeah, I guess I’ve had a bit of ‘Whoops there, vicar’ stuff and you are more likely to get things that are close to you. If you are given the opportunity to do something wildly transformative, that would be really exciting. Recently I’ve had to do parts with different accents, which is great. A few years ago, I was doing a play at the National, and I thought, ‘It’s just another guy in a V-neck and a pair of chinos’ but a friend said, ‘Well, what are you expecting to play, a Mexican drug dealer?’”
He would, however, like to expand his repertoire, he says. “I’m at an age now when I can play doctors or lawyers or someone with grey hair in a suit.
“I’d also like to play a real baddie and I have a yearning to be one of those detectives on procedural shows where you are walking up to the crime scene and you show your badge and take a look at stuff, then get back in the car with your cop buddy and ask, ‘What do you make of it?’. I love that sort of stuff. And I like the serial aspect of it, where you are playing the same character for a decent period of time.”
He has no burning desire to return to stand-up for now and admits to getting nervous before live performances. “I don’t know when I’ll next go on stage – I’ll be absolutely in bits,” he anticipates. “I don’t think your nerves ever disappear, but how you handle them changes.”
He and his family moved from London six years ago to a town in Monmouthshire, and work and family continue to keep him busy – he’s still on the panel show circuit, although he’s not sure for how much longer.
“There’s a few that I’ll go and do, but I just sometimes think I don’t know if I could do them any more, but maybe that’s because I don’t feel sharp after all this,” he reflects.
His favourite remains Would I Lie to You?, which he has guested on a few times. “I can’t believe how good the people are on it. I’ve been on both sides. Sometimes I don’t think I’m contributing. I’m just sitting there laughing.”
He hopes the book festivals in the diary for the autumn will still happen and there’s at least one more book on the cards. “There’s something about writing a novel which is oddly anxiety-inducing,” he confides. “I’m not constrained by truth, which is slightly terrifying.”
History by Miles Jupp, published by Headline, is out now, priced £16.99.
Miles Jupp will be at the Ilkley Literature Festival in “Funny Fiction”, with fellow novelist and Father Ted producer Lissa Evans, on October 17. To book, go to www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk