Take a bow, Alex: After eight years, the actor playing London’s comedy mayor Boris Johnson is quitting the role

In retrospect, it was obvious that "Boris" could never be real. Image: Getty.

When Boris Yeltsin retired from politics in 1999 it left a hole in the schedule of Alex Pfeiffer, the New York born comedian who had played him on Saturday Night Live. Looking for a new character, Pfeiffer had a chance meeting with two British comedy writers, Barney and Brienna Cheatem, who were in New York on holiday.

Pfeiffer was fascinated by the then moribund nature of right wing UK politics, with William Hague’s Conservative party polling in minus numbers, and Blairism still ascendent. Between them, the Cheatems and Pfeiffer crafted a right-wing comic character for British politics, retaining the “Boris” name for their initial improv sessions, and deciding not to abandon it when they couldn’t come up with anything better.

With Pfieffer unknown in the UK (Saturday Night Live didn’t air there), the Cheatems saw the opportunity to, in a sense, pretend the character was real, rather than presenting him as overtly fictional. “We liked Alan Partridge,” admits Brienna, acknowledging the obvious inspiration without a pause. “Boris”, in Pfeiffer's conception, would be an absurd character, verbose but prone to misusing words, from a privileged background, but with an intimidating thuggish demeanour reminiscent of a drunken bully at a bus stop.

“We initially wanted him to be a fictional character whom you enjoyed watching, despite them repeatedly doing ridiculous or vile things – like Jeremy Clarkson, or Dot from Line of Duty,” explains Barney, “But, as with Johnny Speight and Alf Garnett we found we’d created a satirical fictional device that people not only took seriously, but which they actually supported.”

“Boris” won the Mayoralty on a “Ha Ha, No, He’s Only Joking” ticket. The ludicrous nature of many of the plans he came up with for London, didn’t seem to dent his popularity, either. “The dangleway,” laughs Brienna, “Boris Island? And the Garden Bridge. I mean, seriously? We were absolutely hammered on Ouzo when we came up with those. Yet the first is there, used by no one except Arsenal’s advertising men, bleeding money, and the third will probably go ahead too, despite being in the exact spot where anyone can see London really absolutely definitely doesn’t need a new bridge at all.”

The Bridge was the ultimate expression of an idea of Pfieffer’s – that the childish “Boris” had a passion for alliteration, resulting in over-budget, largely useless “Boris Buses”, ridiculously heavy “Boris Bikes” and so on. “We thought that them being sponsored by Barclays would be a problem,” acknowledges Barney, “Bankers aren’t exactly anyone’s favourite species right now, but there was so little problem that when that sponsorship lapsed, we went with one from Santander, despite it not beginning with B.

“I think Alex was a bit upset by that, actually.”

Some critics argued that the "Boris" character predicted the rise of other politicians across the Atlantic. Image: Getty.

Despite these obvious failures, “Boris” grew in popularity. The duo responded to this unexpected turn in their writing: “We tried hard to darken ‘Boris’,” says Brienna, “When Channel 4 broadcast that phone call where he agreed to hand over the personal details of a journalist to someone who wanted to physically threaten them... We thought that might dent his popularity. But no.”

 “When he stayed on holiday while London literally burned, there was surprisingly little comeback,” Barney interjects, rubbing his chin. “I thought that would cause us more problems to be honest, it’s not a very plausible plot development in what’s meant to be a mature western democracy.”

The claim in Boris’ biography of Winston Churchill, that he was the only Prime Minister to lead troops in battle, was intended by Pfieffer and the writers as a turning point. “It’s obviously ludicrous,” notes Brienna, “And exactly the sort of thing that annoys the middle english types that “Boris” was meant to appeal to. Even ignoring that the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister twice, it’s very clear that, with Attlee, MacMillan and Eden in there, Churchill struggles into the top five most militarily distinguished British Prime Ministers in his own War Government.”

Yet again, there was little comment on this absolutely howling error – one that would have been used to destroy a book on the topic by literally anyone else alive. Even before anyone noticed that the same volume claimed the Germans captured Stalingrad.

In response, the writers gave Pfieffer – up to that point on a relatively tight lead when it came to public improvisation – more leeway to be absurd off his own bat, hoping this would have some impact. “When he shouted ‘In the name of god and mammon, go!’ about the Occupy movement – a statement that makes no sense at all on any level, no matter how hard you try and excuse it – we really thought the wheels might come off. But no.

“Then that foul mouthed breakdown on the BBC during the 2012 election? Again, it was reported, but nobody really cared,” comments Barney, still clearly amazed.  “It’s almost as if no one in the Britain was remotely interested in holding him to account on any level. We really couldn’t work it out.”

With another London mayoral election imminent, Pfieffer, Barney and Brienna are now done with “Boris” – tired of a joke that, they acknowledge, was played out long ago and was never really as funny in practice as it seemed that first night in New York. Pfieffer has some voiceovers to do for Dreamworks, and is missing his native NYC.

Meanwhile Barney and Brienna are writing material for a retired geography teacher who has inexplicably found himself near the top of another political party. “The Left are as hopeless now as the Right were when we came up with Boris – it was time for a change of target. The jokes are easier on the other side right now, and maybe we’re getting lazy as writers.”

Yet “Boris”, with his £250,000 a year column in the Telegraph, has made all three of them rich – so why not keep the character going? Why not stand for a third term?

“Pfieffer’s performance fees, which have been getting exponentially larger, are paid out of an Arts Council grant that, as of a year after the last general election, no longer exists,” admits Barney, “Without that subsidy, the maths don’t work and this obviously implausible creation just isn’t financially viable.

“In austerity Britain, we all need to tighten our belts.”

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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