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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12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: flickr.com/photos/joshtechfission/ CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.


This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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