“Gove Story”: The final outing for London’s comedy mayor Boris Johnson

A screenshot from the penultimate episode of "Boris Johnson". Image: Getty.

Back in May, we revealed Boris Johnson’s previously untold origin story. The former London mayor was – this is properly, definitely true, honestly* – really the creation of a pair of British comedy writers, Brienna and Barney Cheatem, and the former Saturday Night Live performer Alex Pfeiffer.

Now, the story concludes...

No one can deny that the two-part series finale of Boris Johnson, the punningly entitled “Gove Story”, was both dramatically satisfying and very funny. In a storyline with more twists than the annotated lyrics of Chubby Checker, viewers were treated to the sight of Boris’ ultimate downfall, brought down by his own sub-Machiavellian machinations.

The story saw the eponymous fictional former mayor of London Boris Johnson (Alex Pfeiffer) deciding to lead the “Leave” campaign in the EU referendum, agreeing to fight for a cause he didn’t believe in and which he didn’t believe could win. His confident expectation was that its disappointed acolytes would make him Prime Minister in the aftermath.

The only problem was that – in a twist straight out of The Producers – the campaign won. The victory left his plans in tatters.

Boris always knew that the “Brexit” campaign would unleash an unprecedented economic, political, diplomatic and constitutional crisis for no reason whatsoever. But his involvement was the culmination of the darkening of the character the Cheatems had begun as long ago as 2009.

“Boris declaring for ‘Leave’ is what we call an ‘Angel kills Jenny’ moment,” comments series writer and Boris co-creator Brienna Cheatem, referring to an iconic scene from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. “Before that, the evil version of Angel is such an entertaining bastard that you enjoy watching him be evil. After that, he’s gone too far, and you want him to be destroyed before he literally drags the entire planet to hell.”

“Boris had to be shown that you can’t game politics – that it’s too important for that,” says Brienna’s writing partner and husband Barney. “There had to be some kind of reckoning.”

Originally, the referendum result was to be the final scene of the series. But quite late on, the Cheatems decided to move that scene back an episode, and have the series final concentrate on the fallout from that moment. As with the original creation of Boris in 1999, the inspiration came from an actor.

“Iwan (Rheon) who played Michael Gove is just brilliant,” says Brienna, “He was a fan of the show, and he had some time between series of Game of Thrones, so came to us about a part.” Gove was originally intended as a background character. But Iwan’s performance was so complex – that bizarre, chewing side-clap was just perfect – that the writers found themselves giving him more and more to do.

“Like Boris, Gove started off as a joke,” says Barney. “This guy who says ridiculous things, but somehow everyone treats him like he’s Bertrand Russell.” Barney had a lot of fun writing some of Gove’s old newspaper columns, often quoted in the show. “The one where he compares the Good Friday Agreement to Chamberlain at Munich was probably the most effective demonstration of the pseudo-intellectual grandstanding we wanted him to be characterised by.”

The writers drew much of their inspiration for the character from another fictional ‘intellectual’. Brienna points to “that bit in Adrian Mole where he joins the gang that bullied him the previous year, so they’ll move onto someone else”. As with Mole, though, the joke was that Gove wasn’t an intellectual heavyweight at all. “He has a 2:1 in English, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of intellectual mediocrity. But he’s capable of abstraction, so the other characters think he’s clever.”

Hubris, meet nemesis

So it was that Gove became Boris’ Nemesis: the joke politician was brought down by another, bigger joke. Gove, having announced that he’d be Boris’ campaign manager for the leadership contest that followed the referendum, launched his own bid without informing his former boss. Boris’ support evaporated instantly.

In a final irony, though, the ostensibly intellectual Gove had no more plan as to how to actually execute Brexit than anybody else – and so it soon became clear he probably wouldn’t win either. Boris Johnson ends before the leadership election is concluded. But the final montage shows sterling in free fall, and Boris’ banker friends telling him they were planning a move to Frankfurt. The final act of London’s comedy mayor was to destroy the rich man’s playground he’d done so much to create.

The Cheatems are now working on a new project. Corbynets is a BBC Three online spin off of BBC Alba’s Cybernats, a dark comedy about how appallingly a movement’s true faithful can behave with online anonymity as their ally. The writers say they haven’t much time to think about what the characters from Boris Johnson would be up to these days. “But the proposed spin off with Boris as the first President of an Independent London is right out,” says Brienna. “That’s too ridiculous even for us.”

All the same, says Barney, “it’s good to be able to work these national issues through on TV. Imagine if these grotesques were real, and had any influence at all on real life. Imagine that their witless petty rivalries and basic lack of character would determine the fate of nations.

“That would be appalling. Too appalling for words.”

He then put his face in his hands and wept.

*It isn’t.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.