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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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.