Photo credit: Renegade Inc.

Staggering Hubris: How Josh Berry created a monster

As Number 10's Special Advisors get ripped apart (or not) in Sue Gray's Massive Report, Josh Berry reflects on life as BoJo's SpAd from hell (or at least Oxford)

Do you take off your signet ring when you go to interview Josh Berry? I wish I could say I was asking for a friend. On the one hand (the left, obviously), there’s no point in hiding who you are — the Puglian tan line doesn’t lie, and nor do all those problematic vowels. But on the other… it’s a bit like putting on a lime green bathing suit to visit Sacha Baron Cohen. Berry wears one himself, you see (the ring, not the thong), but only for a very particular sport — and the dread item is sitting on the dining room table of his West Kensington flat as we walk in: hard and gold and gleaming, with the heft of a grade three tumour.

When Berry slips it on, the comedian and writer morphs from the charming, thoughtful, entirely pleasant young man he is into another beast entirely. It is like Clark Kent and his glasses (but in reverse, and with less jaw.) The red chinos help, too, along with the gaucho belt that scaffolds them, not to mention the almost-audible Cheshire grin. (The cat, not the county, obviously.)

Photo credit: Renegade Inc.

This is Rafe Hubris, BA — arch SpAd to Boris Johnson, “Networkeur, Tindereur, and Chang Connoisseur”— and you’ve met him before. Rafe is every chap who brays, nostrils raised, near large format rosé. He is every chap whose dealer knows which entrance of the Hurlingham to meet him at. He is every chap floating upwards to his level of incompetence with only bluster, charm, and some handy Franglais in the Schoffel pocket. He may be you. He is certainly a few of your friends. Sometimes, chere reader, he has been me. And he may well be running our country as we speak. 

"I thought: ‘what kind of feckless moron would advise someone to do that?!'"

“I knew those people at university,” Berry begins. “Though I was at private school, I remember suddenly seeing that sort of chap around a lot more — the type of over-promoted, incredibly confident person, who has no real talent to back it up. And so you kind of squirrel away all of this stuff about people in your head, without always realising you’ve done it. ” For a while, Rafe Hubris —  perhaps Berry’s most ingenious and defining creation — lay dormant, like hereditary gout. And then came a spark, in the run up to the 2019 Conservative leadership election (you remember: the one where Rory Stewart took off his tie, and absolutely no-one did drugs.)

“At one point, Michael Gove tweeted out some grime lyrics in response to Stormzy, who had said he didn’t like Boris Johnson,” Berry remembers. “And I just thought: ‘what kind of feckless moron would advise someone to do that?’ Who is that person?’” Soon, Rafe Hubris (OE, Oxon.) began to shimmer, gammony and guffawing, into view. And he remained, for a while, as an outspoken background character in Berry’s extensive repertoire — alongside the world’s finest faux Louis Theroux and the brilliant, chimney-throated ‘Marlboro Girl from Marlborough’ — to be dragged out whenever anyone mentioned Colombia or 151. 

But you can’t keep a man like Rafe down for long. And soon, in the Tiger King-and-Zoom-quiz depths of 2020 — when everyone was scared, and everyone was on Instagram, and everyone was wondering who was to blame — the character began slowly to stand for something much more poignant and nuanced. “Rafe came more clearly into focus,” Berry says. “I think comedy is good when it sort of seems to be an explanation for something. And a really good explanation for the pandemic is simply a very confident young man saying ‘Yea mate, just sack it off, wait till later — no problemo.’” We’d see Rafe — shirt undone in a three button salute, a Padstow tan on his forehead — breezily advising the Prime Minister on matters of international health policy over the phone, with all the fluffy confidence of a hungover second year in a mid-morning PPE tutorial.  “It’s sort of a literary trope, like Jeeves and Wooster,” Berry says. “The sidekick who’s exposing some truth about the people in power. Rafe is supposed to be a mini Boris Johnson in most respects. I think a good way to describe him is a ‘Neo Yuppie’ — BJ thirty years younger.”

"Rafe is a ‘Neo Yuppie’ — BJ thirty years younger..."

Sometimes, in Rafe’s frequent, squealing dispatches, art imitated life, and sometimes life imitated art. (Though in one gently terrifying aspect, at least, Berry’s creation was not entirely accurate. “An actual political advisor came up to me after a show recently and said: “the problem is, you’re probably a bit too old to play a Spad now,’” Berry recalls. “Because apparently they’re mostly new grads — they’re all 21…”) In one particularly pleasing twist of fate, Rafe inadvertently pre-empted a piece of government spin by three days. “Around all the Dominic Cummings stuff, when it was all looking pretty bad, I had Rafe saying: ‘Blow-Jo, you’re going to have to get married, mate. Sorry, but we need the press,’” Berry says. “And then, almost immediately afterwards, he actually did.” In another, Rafe advised the beleaguered Home Secretary Pritti Patel that she should “say sorry if people feel they have been bullied” — a piece of first class hook-wriggling which the real life Patel then duly delivered at her next press conference, pretty much word-for-smirking-word.

A few nights before we meet, Berry tells me he bumped into a genuine Rafe in the wild of a West London club garden — sniffling like a Dyson, yea-yea-yea-yea-mate-ing at full volume, clad unironically in aggressive chinos. “There is something amazing about being slapped across your face with your own comedic invention,” Berry laughs. “You realise: this is a real, living breathing human. It’s wonderful. It’s so affirming, because you realise Rafes are everywhere.”

The Hubris Brigade is skewered, in many ways, with a good dose of affection. “These people are inherently charming, charismatic, and sometimes bright,” Berry says. “And there are wonderful aspects of someone like Rafe. In many ways, I just feel sorry for people like him — about how people like that process emotion. Because men of that age and type don’t have a relationship with vulnerability,” he says. “I say that with a note of sadness and empathy — it’s by no fault of their own that they behave and think like that.”

“Alan Partridge is every man of a certain age making a gaffe and being out of touch. Rafe is every overconfident young man sending an email saying ‘I hope this finds you feeling positive and testing negative,’” Berry laughs. “You might see these people cry, perhaps, on the odd occasion. But then they snap back immediately. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, what are you talking about mate?’, that sort of thing. They don’t know how to be vulnerable,” Berry says. “When Rafe started out, he was just about cocaine and saying things that rhymed, and that was the end of the joke. But now he seems to be about five or six different things at once, which is much more interesting.”

"It's so affirming — you suddenly realise that Rafes are everywhere..."

Later that evening, I head to see Berry perform as Rafe at a packed out theatre just off Leicester Square. There are Rafe Hubris business cards beneath every seat — printed, of course, in a handsome Oxford blue — and a sort of upper-middle class burble in the bar beforehand. Robert Peston, the Political Editor of ITV News, is sitting almost directly behind me with his daughter, and on the way in someone had three bags of cocaine confiscated by the bouncer. (“That’s beautifully on brand,” Berry says later.) With his signet ring glinting in the half light and a PowerPoint clicker in his palm, Rafe guides the audience through the horror show of the past 18 months as if dissecting a particularly boozy night at the White Horse. Outside during the interval, two 40-something head teachers from South London coo over menthol Vogues and Berry’s physique (“Such lovely arms,”) before speaking with touching candour about how the skits brightened the monotony of various lockdown lulls. Inside, Peston chortles nerdily throughout, as do the few furtive Rafes scattered, you feel, throughout the auditorium. 

“My target is not the guy with the violent trousers,” Berry says. “One guy DM’d me before a show and said ‘let me know which chinos to wear tonight, because I don’t want to clash with Rafe.’ He sent me six different pairs of chinos — like the Farrow & Ball paint chart,” he laughs. “And then he sent me a picture of his housekeeper holding up two final pairs — light pink and plum. I love that.”

Photo credit: Renegade Inc.

“Really, I’m mostly mocking the reverence of Oxbridge — which I think is important to mock,” Berry says. “The place doesn’t create the thinkers of the quality that people imagine it does. It teaches people to be certain, and it makes them very good at bluffing. And it teaches you that if you’re good at leading people off on tangents you can get away with not being very rigorous at all — so long as you’re bright enough to do it.” Certainly, it’s not hard to draw a ladder directly from the stuffy, bluffy studies of Oxbridge tutorials to the Fulham living rooms of SpAds like Rafe — and finally to the steps of Downing Street, if the current premier’s anything to go by. So what’s next for Rafe? 

“I suspect I’ll keep him around,” Berry says. “He is affable and he is funny. You’d see him at drinks and he’d be good value, sure. But you wouldn’t leave him in a room with your parents. He’d just say something awful.”

“More long term, though, I can see him in a front-facing position,” says Berry. “I think it would be funny to make him a parody of a minister one day, which would perhaps be even more nuanced and interesting.” And terrifying, I add. Today: Pret. But tomorrow? The world. 

Staggering Hubris: How Josh Berry created a monster

Staggering Hubris by Josh Berry

£8.99

Buy Now

Further Reading