They have put something in the water
They seek a cure for the conversation
They stole a march on your indecision
And the first to fall is laughter
Laurence Fox, The Distance
The bus named Laurence Fox is parked outside Waitrose in Harrow, idling in exquisite metaphor: a new assault on, or corrective to, conventional politics, called Reclaim. The man Laurence Fox wears a long sort of cashmere bat cape and is surrounded by advisors. They are older than he, and male, which explains the bat cape. They don’t know that it is not relatable, but he is a trained actor: he seeks a costume. He is tall and gaunt, and he seems uneasy and distracted. We drive to the party stall on a necrotic shopping street. Most of the few volunteers are female, old to young, a piano scale. They look coyly excited. He eyes a younger one. “Aye-aye” he says. (He knows.) “We’ve been using pears as paper-weights,” she explains, indicating pears on leaflets, but the stall is in a wind tunnel, and the leaflets scatter.
Fox is famous for two reasons: because, on Question Time in January 2020, as the novelty fifth guest, he called a black woman a racist for calling him a “white, privileged male”. “It’s so easy to just throw your charge of racism at everybody and it’s starting to get boring now,” he said. He seemed filled with anger, and he could not stop. The same month he called the appearance of a Sikh soldier in the film 1917 “forcing diversity” but Sikhs, it was pointed out, did fight on the Western Front. It was race baiting. He apologised, but he seemed aggrieved.
The second reason is the insatiable desire of British people to watch the murder of Oxford dons. He played Sergeant James Hathaway of Thames Valley Police in Lewis, the successor to Inspector Morse, for nine seasons. Beyond this, his work on film is thin. Few directors have exploited his anger, and that is why he is here. I have watched every episode of Lewis, and Hathaway is the most interesting character by default. He is a sometime Christian, an occasional intellectual, and a committed depressive. Fox’s acting career is summarised as a Inspector Morse tribute.
Fox’s internal motivations are not so clear, but he has not had nine seasons to reveal them. His father, the superb actor James Fox — the best in a dynasty of actors — fled drama for a decade for a Christian cult. Was Laurence, when playing Hathaway, playing his father James? The only thing he tells me about his family is that they tease him. A burglary at his home was caught on CCTV and they mocked his appearance in the video for not being convincing enough. He suffered at Harrow School, where he was expelled before his A levels for a sexual misdemeanour, which ended his chances of university. He worked as a gardener, applied to RADA and appeared as an aristocrat in Gosford Park and a fascist in Foyle’s War. He was married to and acrimoniously divorced from the actor Billie Piper, with whom he shares two sons. At the end of season nine of Lewis, he walked away in a long, black coat, not to a series of his own but to this, and it is sillier, sadder, and infinitely riskier.
He is more courteous in life than on Twitter, but he could hardly fail to be, and that makes me distrust him. There, he uses the phrase “All Lives Matter” and incites others to break lockdown rules to combat authoritarianism, which he claims to fear while dressing, sometimes, in quasi-military dress. He is at heart a chaos-maker and for this he was given £5 million in funding, mostly from former Tory donors, to deny his charisma to others. (He voted for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017.) Reclaim’s aims are freedom of speech, the reform of institutions to ensure it, and the realisation of Fox’s personal definition of national pride. His campaign leaflet is a photograph of a muzzled Winston Churchill and a promise to “Scrap plan to tear down London’s statues”. Now he stands for the London mayoralty, where he is currently polling level with Count Binface (“campaigning for justice, lasers, Lovejoy and the return of Ceefax”) on 1%. He says he doesn’t mind about Count Binface, and I believe him, so I wonder if he actually cares about victory or is surfing a wind that appeared to him; the next gig. “I love his work. In Binface we trust.”
His campaigning here, meanwhile, amounts to awkward, and slightly pitiable, flirting: “I have a bag of bunting at home, I forgot to bring it.” It’s the fashion; almost everyone flirts when campaigning, especially the Prime Minister, so Fox can’t be blamed for that. Like every populist showbusiness has created — the obvious comparison is Russell Brand — Fox isn’t interested in details. (Two weeks later I watch a man dressed as a member of the Village People ask him if he would decrimalise drugs. He said he didn’t know.) He prefers to dress up, rant, and flirt. “I don’t do political particularly,” he says, “so whenever I commission a bit of work they [the staff] go, ‘how do you want it to look?’ I say, ‘I don’t care how it looks’”. Instead, he says things like: “What is my mayoral cigarette strategy? ‘Bring back menthol’?”
His fans, though, are hopeful. “He articulates what a lot of people are feeling right now,” says one. “They [he means “we”] have to watch what they say. Almost as if we have a point where everything is called racist or offensive. That isn’t to say some things aren’t.” The next is an ex-Benedict Cumberbatch fan, who has transferred her allegiance to Fox, and is obviously here for fun: “When he stood up on the stage and said, ‘Fuck the Tories,’ I finished with him. I couldn’t watch him again.” Actors as leaders rather than leading actors: what could be more decadent? He has left drama, but he remains a vessel.
A new fan appears: “Alright Laurence, I follow you on Twitter.” They do an arm bump. “You look good,” he adds, indicating the bat cape. “You too mate,” says Laurence. “Gotta go, mate,” says the fan. Fox talks instead to the former Cumberbatch fan, who moans that she looks like an “old bag”. “You don’t look like an old bag. I look like an old bag. Can someone set up a jacuzzi?” It is possible; it wouldn’t even be that weird nowadays. The media is irresponsible: the Question Time appearance was cynicism by the BBC and Fox should be grateful to the corporation he loathes, though it isn’t a contradiction he would acknowledge. I wonder if the staff will summon a jacuzzi for the photographs.
“Great aubergines,” he says politely at the fruit stall, as if at a cocktail party. He has to be encouraged to discuss politics with the owner: “I don’t like imposing myself on people.” An emissary is sent. “The fruit guy won’t talk, he’s too busy,” comes the answer. Instead, we peer through the windows of Foxtons. There is nothing else to do. Then we board the bus for a local golf club. He is guarded — the media feed his paranoia, and he mentions an article in the Guardian, suggesting obsession on the writer’s behalf — but jocular, if in an exhausted manner.
“Laurence first [off the bus],” says a handler at the golf club. They discuss whether he should wear a mask: “I’m not partial to masks,” he says. (He was recently present at an anti-lockdown protest where policemen were injured.) “Put one on if they ask you.” “You are now allowed to play ze golf,” he says, in a German accent, to emphasise the potential for tyranny. We follow him to the driving range. He takes off the coat, takes a swing and the ball flies away. He does it perfectly. “There’s not much of him, is there?” says the former Cumberbatch fan.
Now he wants to find his old matron from Harrow because “she was always on the boys’ side. She liked us.” I wonder if his obsession with his school mirrors that of Lord Voldemort, who also returned to his school, though not in a bus with his name on. He fiddles with his telephone, presumably texting her: “I never see her!” He insists we drive to the bluff on which Harrow School sits. It was vast, red and pompous; it must have been painful when they betrayed him for being who he was. He sees the former school chaplain, Father Power, in the street. “Father Power!” he shouts from the bus, and a man dressed for Little Waitrose swivels. Then he sees Matron.
“Mates,” he shouts from the bus. This is real emotion: it is his best scene yet. He flies out, and to her. Matron is tiny and ancient. She wears a beige coat and looks worried. She asks him: “How are you?” His head bows to her. He looks sad, and young, and slightly bashful: “I’m alright.” She says to the campaign manager: “Will you look after him?” Then, to me: “He was the star of the show [at school].” Is that what he came to hear? Is this encounter the real purpose of the day?
I ask her – has he changed? “Not one bit”. “Don’t say that,” he pouts at her, “Say I’m grown up”. (He is 42). She says, soothingly: “you are. But you always were”. She thinks he will be a good mayor: “He knows all the nooks and crannies.” Are you going to vote for him? “I think I’ll have to. Good luck!” He replies: “Love you, Mates”.
Now Father Power asks: “What are you hoping for?” “To lose gloriously,” Fox replies, and this is the most interesting thing he says all day. He told The Times he was quite a self-destructive actor. Perhaps he is quite a self-destructive politician. “Say a prayer for the campaign,” says the campaign manager, who might agree. I think he means it.
Now Fox has seen Matron, he is more relaxed. We attempt a semi-formal interview, which is not easy with a man who is vicious on Twitter and polite in life, and whose followers gabble around him. Between these, I cannot fix him.
He says he was hounded out of acting and, because he is a free speech absolutist, he cannot mind: “People are free to do what they want to do,” he says. “I have to stand up for their right to say what they want to say. I’m sad that we live in a culture where those sorts of things happen [but] I was surprised. I thought you could accuse me of quite a lot of things — being naive or sensitive or whatever — but I was blown away by that the way it was turned into a race issue. There have,” he adds, “been many people who have tried to destroy me since. But I feel pretty good.”
He says he is glad he left drama: “I can’t fake emotion. If you play a part of a crazed lunatic, you become a crazed lunatic, so it affects the way that you think.”
He insists politics is “much more creative than show business, because you can actually do things and say, ‘look here’s a problem, shall we change it so that our children don’t hate each other for no reason?’” This is frustrating because he too enables hatred. He calls his enemies “race baiters” but what is he? A typical stump speech is: “I want to reclaim your freedom to speak. To cherish your history rather than rewrite it. And to teach our children to be confident, not ashamed of who they are and where they come from.”
He has some good instincts — he complains that the Labour Party doesn’t speak enough about class and that the Conservative Party is barely Conservative. Both are true, but he is dominated by his hatred for the “the nasty religion” he calls “wokeness”. “Due to cancel culture and lack of freedom of speech, half of the debate has been removed,” he says, but his emphasis on this small minority removes the rest of the debate, even if they did chase him out of drama.
It was a strangely depressing day, if you are not his enemy; if you liked Lewis. He is childlike, dissatisfied and vulnerable: his campaign is amateurish; he will fail.
The first to fall is laughter.
This article has been amended. Originally the statement incorrectly attributed to Mr Fox on Twitter was “White Lives Matter”. We are happy to correct this to “All Lives Matter”.