A preening egotist accused of leaking government documents and under threat of extradition takes refuge in the London embassy of a South American country ... does the premise of new political comedy Asylum sound familiar?
Well yes, it’s no surprise that since the much-anticipated BBC4 show was announced last year, it has been talked about as “the Julian Assange sitcom”, even if the main character has neither white hair nor an Australian accent.
Asylum was devised by Kayvan Novak (of Fonejacker fame) and producer Tom Thostrup, and Novak acknowledges that the WikiLeaks founder’s situation – he’s been living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012 – was his main inspiration for the three-part series.
“I thought there’s a trend of these whistleblowers getting stuck in various situations,” Novak says, “and a Julian Assange-like character in an embassy being used as a pawn between America and everyone else could be hilarious. I’d never done anything political or zeitgeisty before – I’m more a funny-voice and pranking people on the street guy – but this felt like something that could be current in its subject matter and also make for some classic comedy.”
Did he and Thostrup consider making the lead character the actual Assange? “There was a debate about that,” says Novak, “but in making Dan not Assange, we could torture his ego by making him somebody who wants to be as notorious as Assange but never can be. And that way we didn’t have to cast a white-haired Australian guy ....”
Dan, who has been living in the embassy’s broom cupboard for a year after revealing CIA torture, is played by Ben Miller (of sketch duo Armstrong and Miller); he describes the starting point for his characterisation as “a mishmash” of Assange and Snowden.
“They’re intriguing people,” Miller says. “I watched their interviews and Snowden’s awkwardness is as fascinating as Assange’s assuredness, but I tried to find something of them in myself, and that was [to do with] ego. As someone on telly who has a bit of fame it would be easy to turn into a megalomaniacal monster, so you have to keep your ego in check.”
‘Asylum’ starts on BBC4 on 10 Feb