By Simon Fearn
Durham has its fair share of famous alumni – George Alagiah and Jeremy Vine to name a couple – but most of you will probably have seen Nick Mohammed on the big or small screen, perhaps without realising it. In the summer of 2015 you could catch him in cinemas saving Matt Damon from Mars, and he recently rubbed shoulders with Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth in a hilariously awkward scene from Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Film & TV catch up with actor, comedian, writer and St. Aiden’s alumnus Nick Mohammed fresh from his five-star Edinburgh Fringe show Mr Swallow – Houdini. He is currently finalising the scripts for Channel Four sitcom Morning Has Broken, which he co-wrote with Julia Davis (Nighty Night, Camping), and the day after we interview him is the final deadline for his upcoming children’s book. It’s fair to say Mohammed is pretty in demand, but how did he get here from trudging up and down Elvet like the rest of us?
Aside from working as a professional magician since his late teens, it was far from obvious that Mohammed was destined to become an actor and comedy writer when he arrived at Durham. “I always had this pipe dream that maybe I could be a magician or entertainer in some kind of way,” he remembers, “but because I’d gone from secondary school to university and then applied for a PhD, I’d kind of been swept up in academia a little bit. It felt a little too rebellious to think maybe I could be an artist; I’d never really considered it and certainly didn’t know the route to it.”
Mohammed still has a warm affection for Durham, and he remains in touch with the vast majority of the friends he lived with in college. “It’s kind of crazy to think that being put next door to each other kind of dictated the rest of our lives,” he laughs. “There was always so much going on in Durham, it was such a close knit environment – so much fun and such a beautiful place!” Though it wasn’t until his PhD at Cambridge that he started to think seriously about comedy, in its own way Durham has played a part in his success. “It undoubtedly improved my confidence; not that I was shy, but I was deinitely on the geekier kind of things at school,” Mohammed remembers. “School was great, but it lacked that tiny bit of ambition which Durham had.”
Unfortunately there were limited opportunities to showcase his growing interest in comedy. He ironically auditioned unsuccessfully for the Durham Revue twice, which at the time “was the only kind of comedy society”.
“There wasn’t another outlet for comedy, so I didn’t do it,” he explains. In fact Mohammed’s time in Durham was not especially out of the ordinary: he was involved in Castle Theatre Company’s summer tours; starred in a few plays at the Assembly Rooms; and conducted Hill Orchestra.
It wasn’t until he successfully auditioned for the Cambridge Footlights while studying for a PhD that his comedic talents became apparent.
It’s surprising to here that Mohammed’s decision to leave Cambridge in order to pursue comedy wasn’t especially difficult. “It’s very strange to say that,” he reflects, “my parents thought it was a big deal!” He took time out from his Geology PhD in the summer for the Footlights’ Edinburgh Fringe run “pretty much knowing I would never go back.”
Instead he started temping at Morgan Stanley in the day and gigging in the evening, quitting in 2007 when he landed a part in the BBC anthology series Fairy Tales which was quickly followed by his first Radio Four series. “I wasn’t earning tonnes and I could hardly rest on my laurels, but it certainly felt like I was a professional comedian then,” Mohammed says. His advice to other aspiring performers: “try and be realistic; try and do the dream part time.”
Starting out in television isn’t too difficult “as long as you’re reasonably good and not a dick about it,” Mohammed says prosaically. “It really counts to be quite humble and not assume too much; a lot of those producers remember you and might get you in for another thing.” Saying this, things might be trickier nowadays. “I started off doing it at a good time,” Mohammed says.
“BBC Three was a big thing; they were a bit more experimental and giving new comedians more opportunities. There’s a worry now that budgets have been slashed, but hopefully it might make them take more risks with it being online.”
After considerable success in television (including roles in The Job Lot and Fresh Meat), he started auditioning for film roles, but bagged the chance to star in Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster through a lucky twist of fate. The Martian’s casting director Nina Gold happened to catch Mr Swallow – The Musical in Edinburgh, in which Mohammed was Northern, nasal and very camp. From this Gold had the surprising thought that Mohammed would be prefect as “this straight American guy” in The Martian, and several more films followed, including Absolutely Fabulous and upcoming literary adaptation The Sense of an Ending.
Mohammed is eager to explore film further, partly because “everything is afforded more time”. “There’s money in film,” he explains, “so you can shoot a scene a day rather than ten scenes a day like you do on telly. In Bridget Jones I’m only in it briefly for this good fun scene, but we spent one or two days doing it to get it right, and as an actor that’s very fulfilling.” Aside from gracing multiplexes, Mohammed is also excited to begin shooting for Morning Has Broken, which is set for release in Spring 2017. “Getting to work with Julia [Davis] on my first series has been a dream,” he says. “It’s been brilliant fun, but quite scary! There was a patch of time just before Edinburgh where Julia wasn’t around and I had to finish off some scripts on my own and felt a weight of responsibility, thinking that this will go out to a lot of people when it’s televised!”
With the live shows, films, television and his book out next February, Mohammed is something of a polymath, and keen to keep doing a variety of different work. “It flexes different muscles,” he says, “going from writing Morning Has Broken to Mr Swallow rehearsals in Edinburgh is such a different experience. They all end up complementing each other to a certain extent; they all have my comic voice in them, even if it’s a slightly different tone.”
Throughout Mohammed has stressed the importance of being easy to work with and, of course, good at what he does – and just under ten years into his career as a full-time comedian and performer he seems swamped with new projects. When success in film and television seems so elusive, perhaps the simpler virtues of hard work and humility are a good place to start.
Photograph: Debbie Scanlan