“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.


Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.

The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.