vulture bets on berry

Only Matt Berry Can Play Boris Johnson on The Crown

Hello, dealer? Yes, please, put it all on Berry. Illustration: by Carolyn Figel

These are hard times, and when things get really dark, we at Vulture like to double down on the things that are still capable of bringing us happiness. That’s why we’re running this recurring column, which serves as half-celebration and half-brainstorm for someone we’re consistently delighted to see on our screens: the beloved British performer of stage and screen Matt Berry. He’s best known for shows like Toast of LondonThe IT Crowd, and What We Do in the Shadows, but we’re confident that a performance by Berry would spruce up all sorts of film and TV stories, big and small. 

So a few times a month, we’ll be using this space to propose new, occasionally out-of-the-box opportunities or roles for Mr. Berry. We are confident that should he ever find this column, he will find it both confusing and mortifying.

I have always considered Matt Berry to be the U.K.’s answer to John Lithgow. Allow me to explain. Both men’s comedic appeal lies in their subversion of the high-status attributes they embody within their respective cultures. Berry swaggers around with the bravado of a British sea captain, which makes it wildly funny to watch him get annoyed by something small. Meanwhile, Lithgow is extremely tall and looks as if he could expel you from an elite private college, so it’s extra hilarious when he’s confused or scared. These are people whose business it is to mock the qualities we consider powerful in men. When Lithgow played Winston Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, this juxtaposition was part of the unique blend of skills that made his performance worthy of an Emmy. To enter a scene with a presence that demands you immediately be taken seriously, only to suddenly begin revealing your deeply human flaws, is a skill that takes years of making fun of yourself to develop. This is why Matt Berry and only Matt Berry can bring Prime Minister Boris Johnson to life on The Crown.

It may seem as though I’m getting really ahead of myself with this. Yes, The Crown is only up to the late ’80s at this point, and creator Peter Morgan has said he doesn’t want it to cover current-day royal drama. But this is one of the biggest, most expensive television shows in history. It has already planned to reach the early aughts through seasons five and six, at which point Johnson will be in the shadow Cabinet (not as cool as it sounds). Netflix claims The Crown will conclude after season six, but that’s also what it said about season five. And let’s get real: No one just walks away from a massively popular show like this before they have to. When Game of Thrones reached the end of its source material, they simply made the episodes even longer. And now they’re making prequels! So I contend that Netflix will want more; we will want more. Whether that’s more seasons or simply some kind of El Camino movie epilogue, who can say? But the show will eventually need to find a good Boris: someone who can be both a bumbling upper-class Brit and a shrewd political opportunist. Berry has been preparing for this role his entire life.

When you think of Johnson, you’re probably tempted to reduce him to a British version of Donald Trump. But Johnson has always seemed far more calculating. While Trump is a man driven by crudely transparent megalomania, Johnson understands how and when to sacrifice his ego and charm people into liking him. His rise to power was essentially a master class in failing upward, thanks in part to his ability to win people over with his amusing antics. Johnson’s dangling helplessly over hundreds of spectators on a zip line during the 2012 London Olympics was a moment then–Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as a “triumph” because it was really, really funny. Simply put: Boris Johnson is a clown. And while it’s definitely exciting that a widely respected Shakespearean actor who trained at RADA will be taking a stab at Johnson in an upcoming miniseries, to capture the true essence of the PM requires someone who can really understand what he’s doing — a fellow comedian.

Berry fits the bill not only because he’s funny but because he’s a master of the dangerous charm that politicians like Johnson use in their Machiavellian quests for power. It’s an obvious through line in every character he embodies. In Snuff Box, he’s a ladies’ man who executes people for a living; as Stephen Toast, he’s a ladies’ man who manages to infuriate just about everyone he meets; and in What We Do in the Shadows, he’s an actual vampire. What all these characters have in common is that you will love them right up until the moment they deeply offend or kill you. And even then, you still may like them.

This is the hallmark of a right-wing populist leader like Johnson, a man who loves to lie, who put a political prisoner in danger, and who got the queen to shut down Parliament to quash opposition to his Brexit deal but who still wins reelection handily with a campaign full of funny, dishonest ads. A perfect example of this quality is Snuff Box, which Berry created with Rich Fulcher in the early aughts. It feels like a crime to clip this show, mostly because it’s far too surreal to be fully appreciated out of context. But the scene below displays how good Berry is at switching from charming to vile and back again. In it, he’s in the process of stealing away yet another love interest from his partner, Rich (whom he mistreats constantly), before hitting him with his own guitar. He does nothing good in this scene, yet he’s still somehow likable.

Even though it’s clear that Berry could charm anyone into leaving the European Union, Johnson would be his most challenging role yet. It would be far harder than restaging The Phantom of the Opera or playing Batman. For one thing, he would have to shave his beard, which he has had for a while, so I bet he would hate that. He would also have to wear a wig and bleach his eyebrows. His voice, I think, actually works. It doesn’t sound exactly like Johnson’s, but the beauty of Berry’s Johnson would be in his interpretation. Just as Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher isn’t a perfect historical re-creation as much as an example of how people remember her, this role shouldn’t be someone just doing a Johnson impression. No, it should be a man everyone kind of knows already in a ridiculous blond wig swaggering into Buckingham Palace to convince Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament just for him: “Ma’am, I asssssure you this is completely necessary, all will be well, you just leave it to me,” he would coo at her warmly. Poor Lilibet. She’ll never see it coming.

The Johnson that Berry could create is an actual devil. As Lithgow’s Churchill towered over those around him as the living embodiment of Britain’s finest hour, Berry’s chaotic Johnson would strut in unannounced because the world is simply laughing too hard to stop him. His arrival would be a great curse, ushering in some of the darkest days yet for a monarchy that’s definitely not having much fun right now. And this, really, is how The Crown should end: with the stark reminder that power is a poison that destroys even the most well meaning; that it often attracts those seeking to do the most vicious harm, even though they’re really funny; and that Matt Berry can pull off the blond.

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Only Matt Berry Can Play Boris Johnson on The Crown