Ben Miller: “Bridgerton is the televisual equivalent of vitamin D”
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
The actor, comedian, and author discusses Bridgerton, vaccines, and musical chairs
Ben Miller is snuggled inside a parka in a garage - not his garage, but the garage of his friend in his support bubble - due to a gardener severing his home’s fibre optic cable, and he’s relating the importance of vitamin D intake for one’s health, as he describes how he contracted Coronavirus earlier in the year. 2020 is a master and mistress of layering events and facilitating conversational diversions.
A trip to the horses this year turned out to involve a bigger gamble than anyone realised. “I caught it at the Cheltenham Races,” says Miller, with a rueful laugh. “It's funny, because the thing that you notice first of all is that loss of taste and smell. I think at the time, it wasn't known as a symptom. You weren't really sure what you had, but later that loss was recognised as a symptom. I count myself really, really lucky.”
Miller, who studied Natural Sciences at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, is astonished at the velocity of research which has delivered multiple vaccines. “It is absolutely beyond belief. They’re doing all the things they usually do, but running them in parallel. It’s extraordinary. Hopefully by next winter the situation will be different - I think we’ll still have a version of the new norm, social distancing and so on, in 2021. I'd love to be proved wrong, but it seems sensible to expect there'll be a slow return to normal over the next 18 months.”
Which brings us to vitamin D and its positive effects on the human immune system. On these darker winter days sunshine and bright colours are harder to source, which is where Bridgerton steps in. Miller stars as the unpredictable Lord Featherington in the Shonda Rimes produced adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels, which are as vivid as the Chelsea Flower Show in full bloom. “Bridgerton is the televisual equivalent of vitamin D,” laughs Miller. “It's the most extraordinary show, a mix of Gossip Girl and Jane Austen. It's the beginning of the gossip sheets and tabloid journalism in London society with the first season set in 1813, so it’s peak Jane Austen and peak Regency. The mysterious Lady Whistledown is publishing a scandal sheet, which is really stirring up a London society in the absolute fever throes of the marriage season.”
Any criticism of modern dating reality shows should be compared to the real-life event depicted in Bridgerton. “The Ton were the 100 wealthiest families in the UK and they alone would be party to the London marriage season, which were a series of balls, garden parties, and pastoral events where matchmaking would happen. The debutants had a very short window to make a marriage match - it’s the marital equivalent of musical chairs, because the longer the season goes on, fewer chairs remain.” This 19th Century version of Tinder was not, you may be incredibly shocked to learn, devoted to matching two soulmates. Not when huge financial gain was possible.
“The stakes were the highest imaginable, because there are so few truly eligible families,” says Miller. “If you're family number 99 out of the 100 families, this is your chance to become family number one or family number two, if you can make the right marriage. If you're in the Ton and you're part of the season, you have a ticket to the lottery and you could win the top prize.” As a family the Featheringtons have more than one ticket in the lottery, as the Lord and Lady have three daughters, plus mysterious young cousin Marina Thompson, all of whom might be the route to them Featherington their own nest.
Flying from the Featherington nest is what Penelope, Prudence, Philippa, and Marina should attempt as soon as possible, although they’re more likely to be pushed out due to the cruelty of their father. “Lord Featherington’s a very dark character. I loved him,” Miller gleefully admits. “What I really liked about him was that he appears without trace in the show. Slowly you begin to realize he's the unidentified figure in so many of the dramas. He's not a villain, exactly, but he's a very emotionally tortured and troubled person.” As a fatherly role model, he’s one to be reviled for how he treats the young women in his care. “I completely betray them. It’s appalling what I do. Harriet [Cains], Bessie [Carter], Ruby [Barker], and Nicola [Coughlan] are brilliant.”
As much as the series swoons with romantic possibilities between young aristocrats (less so between young female aristocrats and sleazier older male aristocrats), Miller enjoyed how it reveals the toxic potential of the Ton - the Featheringtons’ own marriage is an emotional minefield. “I loved my scenes with Polly [Walker] because they have such a twisted and weird relationship. Whether it was little scenes in rooms looking at each other, or where I was saying the most horrific things to her, I thought it was very clever to have characters like that in this show. Bridgerton is about looking for your ideal love match and the Featheringtons are your worst nightmare of what marriage can be.”
Miller wears his breeches and sideburns well, yet admits he’s never been in a historical or period piece before, other than sketches in The Armstrong & Miller Show. “This is a huge break for me. This is my first really big drama part and that was very exciting,” says Miller, blown away by the size of the production. “I've never seen anything like the set of Bridgerton. Horses and carts and hundreds of supporting artists in their own bespoke Regency costume. Everything bespoke for everybody. Hundreds and hundreds of people.”
The scale is enormous, especially during dancing sequences, and if the cast seem to be having a good time, Miller reveals why. “When there was a dance scene, they would always play some amazing contemporary track, rather than what they were going to use in the episode, because they wanted us all to have the feeling we were in a club or at a rave. It was astonishing.”
Bridgerton launches on Netflix on Christmas Day