I TALK TO: Paul Chahidi

This Country was the breakthrough comedy hit of 2017 and this week the series returns to BBC Three with Paul Chahidi returning as. Rev. Francis Seaton aka the Vicar.

The mockumentary, written by brother and sister duo Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, explore life in a typical Cotswold village. This time around, Kerry has turned over a new leaf and is trying to give back to her community by offering random acts of kindness. And after deciding not to go to Swindon College, Kerry’s cousin Kurtan is coming to terms with his decision and is struggling to get back in to the swing of village life.

As This Country returns, I caught up with actor Paul Chahidi who plays the Vicar to find out what it’s like working with Daisy and Charlie Cooper, what’s in store this series and whether or not we’ll finally see the Vicar lose his temper. Here’s what he had to say…

How did you first feel when you read the script for This Country?

I was immediately struck by the fact that it was very real and not trying to be funny and yet it was hilarious just through character. I only got a little snippet of one episode to begin with, it was just my bit and it was actually a very embryonic series of scenes. It wasn’t fully complete.

I was very drawn to the way the series was looking at rural life and I thought that was rather unusual. The characters in the bit I saw were very well drawn and the dialogue was razor sharp but at the same time very real. It mixed humour and pathos beautifully.

“I think Daisy and Charlie’s writing is just superb”

It’s very rare as an actor that you get dialogue of that quality. You do learn after a while to start recognising really well written dialogue when you see it. There are enough times as an actor when you have perhaps less than good dialogue, that’s  just the way it is.

I think Daisy and Charlie’s writing is just superb, it’s of the highest order. And without wanting to sound too cliché, it comes from a place of truth. I think that’s why it works. If there is anything funny in there, it’s truthful.

That then allows you to go from hilarious situations to something that can be very dark.

One of the things I love about This Country is that characters are three-dimensional. Is it nice to play a character with depth in a comedy?

It’s beautiful. It’s everything you hope for as an actor. This is called a comedy but in many ways it’s as serious as it is comic. But it is a comedy and it’s very important that it is funny but it goes to some very dark places and that for me as an actor is heaven.

I was told years ago by a teacher to look for the serious moments in a comedy and the comedy in serious moments and I think that was very good advice. You’ll see it in everything from Shakespeare onwards, it’s how human beings are in real life.

We’ve all been in very dark places at times in our lives and it’s amazing that humour often surfaces in those moments and Daisy and Charlie are brilliant at capturing that juxtaposition.

“It’s everything you hope for as an actor”

Were you pleased with the reaction to series one?

It was incredible. We believed in the work and we were really proud of it, but as with everything, you do what you think is right to the best of your ability and then offer it up. You have no idea what will happen after that.

We were in a very crowded field of amazing comedies on television and we weren’t really sure what was going to happen.

It was great that it was on BBC Three and that it was going to get a little slot after Match of the Day on BBC One. It’s not necessarily something you’d expect to draw in a lot of viewers terrestrially so the response completely bowled us over.

The kind of comments we were getting on social media, in the press and the number of viewers we were getting, that really astonished us. I believe about 5 million watched it on BBC Three and 1.5m or similar on terrestrial at one point. That was amazing and none of us expected that.

How would you describe your character, Rev. Francis Seaton (The Vicar)?

He’s a genuinely kind, patient and nurturing human being who is confronted with huge challenges on a daily basis. Any character you can name from the series is a challenge! (Laughs) His nurturing side develops in series one and there is something which is explored in the first series and the upcoming series about fathers and their children.

There’s Kerry and her dad and Kurtan and the Vicar. That’s something that is explored in much more depth in series two as well as his son which you’re introduced to.

“You will see the Vicar lose his temper”

What can you say about the Vicar’s son who returns from Bristol?

I don’t want to give too much away but what I can say is that you’re going to find out about the Vicar’s family life. You’re going to meet his son and you’ll understand the Vicar a lot better when you see his relationship with his son. It informs a lot and I hope once you see that relationship, you’ll think back to the first series and go “Ah!” and also his relationship with Kurtan and go “Ah! I see.” He’s got a lot going on.

Everyone’s got problems and challenges in their life and the Vicar is no different from the other characters.

That’s rare isn’t it? For a supporting character to be given so much back story?

Daisy and Charlie are very generous in their writing. They want to go deeper and add layers to every single character in the community which I think and I hope will provide a much more satisfying story and much more satisfying viewing for viewers coming back to This Country for the second series.

It can only enrich the stories of Kerry and Kurtan as well. It enriches the whole thing and it’s absolutely lovely. There are endless possibilities with all the characters and it’s great that we’ve started to go deeper with all of them.

Will we ever see him lose his temper?

I feel like I can reveal that you will see the Vicar lose his temper. I think that will hopefully be deeply satisfying for all concerned. I loved it because it humanised him. It’s all very well being patient and kind, but no one is like that all the time. You get to see him lose his rag big time!

“Daisy and Charlie are very generous in their writing”

What’s his relationship like with Kerry and Kurtan this series?

Well at the end of the first series Kurtan goes off to college which leaves the Vicar to develop and deepen his relationship with Kerry who he nurtures, keeps an eye on and tries to foster a sense of community in, in terms of kindness and thinking of others.

You will see the Vicar and Kerry do various activities within the community together and it’s very sweet but it also has implications on her relationship with Kurtan.

How much fun were the Grease secret cinema scenes in the first episode like to film?

Oh my goodness! We had so much fun! What you see the Vicar wearing is a very toned down version of some of the options I was given! (Laughs)

At one point I was given this huge wig, an even more outlandish jacket and trousers, but it was brilliant. Grease cinema night meant so many different things to different people within that story. So much is going on in a seemingly quite banal setting. It just pans in and out of different people’s stories and it was just hilarious to do!

The main challenge for me as an actor is trying to keep a straight face.

“The main challenge for me as an actor is trying to keep a straight face”

Is there a lot of corpsing filming This Country?

There is a certain amount. You won’t see it on screen because we’re professionals and I like to think of myself as a very disciplined actor. I do like to have a laugh, but I’m not known for being one to corpse. Often I make other people corpse.

But Charlie Cooper is almost like kryptonite. I’ve become weak in his presence. All he has to do is look at me in a certain way, or start to smirk as I’m saying my lines and I have to try and fight back the tears and try not to look like the rank amateur in the scene.

But yes, we do have a lot of fun. I can tell you now, that scene in series one where I had to come out, I can only describe it as ‘The Vicar’s ball bag scene’. We had to do about ten takes because either I would laugh, or they would laugh, or the crew would laugh! It’s a very family-like atmosphere on set.

Speaking of family, there are a lot of Cooper family members in This Country and on set, what’s that been like?

It could have been quite intimidating, but luckily they’re just a lovely family. You’d have Paul and Trevor on set and then Jane their aunt would come and visit as well as Gill, their mum and it would be a real family affair.

And it’s funny because I became like the family Vicar off set! (Laughs) Offering advice, even though they weren’t asking for it! I just blurred the lines between reality and my character.

They were just joyous. A really nice group of people, thank goodness.

“It’s a great way of working and it becomes quite addictive”

Are Daisy and Charlie very generous with their script?

Absolutely. The way we worked, which I loved, is that they’ve created these finely honed scripts and we would do it as written a few times and then there’ll always be at least one take where Tom the director would say “Loosen it up a bit. Play with it. Mess it up a bit and let’s improvise a bit more.”

On the whole we’d say the lines, but we could add bits, riff off each other and see where that led us. Most of the stuff you see is scripted but there will be little bits that would have come out of improvisation that will also be included.

What’s brilliant is that Daisy and Charlie are there all the time watching so they can rewrite things very quickly, even between takes, and suggest you say different lines. Because we’re all used to it now, and we know the characters so well, it’s really easy to go “Yep. That’s fine. You’ve given me a new speech? Great! No problem.” And because it’s a naturalistic style, you don’t have to have a smooth even delivery.

So you’re a fan of improvising?

It’s a great way of working and it becomes quite addictive. You want to work like that the whole time. I love speaking scripted words but it’s very nice to have an element of improvisation and I’ve been very lucky in the past year to have a taste of all that.

I worked in America making a pilot for a comedy from the team behind Saturday Night Live and Modern Family and over there it seems very much the norm to come from an improv background.

Then I did This Country which had elements of that and then I worked with Armando Iannucci in The Death of Stalin and he was similar.

That was tightly scripted but there would be takes where Armando would say to all of us, “Have fun, muck around with it!” He wouldn’t always use it but there were certainly things that came out of that that we wouldn’t have had if we’d felt constrained.

“I admire actors that are versatile”

Did you get a lot more attention from fans in Northleach filming the second series?

Yeah, they know us a lot more. Daisy and Charlie get stopped here there and everywhere but I have to say I never get stopped by anyone in London which is really disappointing. But no, actually I’m really happy because I value my privacy.

In the village during filming, Daisy and Charlie were brilliant. They would make time for anyone who’d come up and want an autograph or their photo taken and they’re really lovely with fans. We did have little stops to do that and it was a great thing.

Maybe more than most programmes, we’re very aware of how grass root support for the programme from viewers has just been amazing and the stuff that’s been said about it on social media. You’d get people honking their horns, rolling down their windows, giving it their thumbs up and coming up to us.

You’re a very versatile actor, in that you do drama and comedy on the small screen and the big screen as well as stage work. Do you enjoy the variety in your roles?

That’s very kind. I’ve played serious roles, I’ve played sinister characters, I’ve played nasty characters and kind characters like the Vicar and everything in between. That is why I became an actor, to play a variety of roles. I wanted to play as many different roles as possible. I admire actors that are versatile.

If I’m honest, I often get cast in comedic roles and if people think I’ve got an aptitude for that then I’m glad. I love comedy. If anything, I think it’s harder to do than straight stuff but, touching on what we talked about earlier, I think the best comedy will always have a deeply serious side to it. You get your cake and eat it really with good comedy.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just finished filming on Good Omens, which is an Amazon/BBC co-production, a Neil Gaiman novel. But that’s not going to come out for a little while because they’re just finishing off filming and then they’ve got a shedload of CGI and special effects to do. It’s going to be a very big number and that I believe will be coming out in 2019.

The Death of Stalin is set to open in America so that’s all very exciting. But those are the two things I’ve been working on as well as This Country, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes up next!

Are you hopeful for another series of This Country?

I hope so. We don’t know anything for definite yet but I know that Shane Allen at the BBC is a big fan of the show and he has been incredibly supportive of the show, as has Chris Sussman, so fingers crossed!

It feels like we are in the best possible position at the moment in terms of the number of viewers we’ve had and the response we’ve had so I hope there’ll be more but we’ll have to wait and see.

This Country returns Mondays from 10am on BBC Three