To tempt James Corden back from La La Land, something exceptional had to be on offer. One of our most famous exports, the Gavin & Stacey co-creator was lured to the US in 2015 after landing the plum job of hosting The Late Late Show.
The late-night talk show and its hit comedy segments including Carpool Karaoke – in which James drives around singing with huge names such as Sir Paul McCartney, Adele and Michelle Obama – catapulted him to global stardom, but now he’s returned to Blighty for an eagerly anticipated new TV comedy-drama.
The project that proved to be irresistible is Mammals, a new Prime Video series from Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed writer of hit play Jerusalem and co-writer of 2015 Bond film Spectre.
It’s a dark, witty fantasy romp, ostensibly about a cheating wife, that takes all kinds of unexpected turns over six episodes, with Corden at its heart, reminding us what a gifted actor he is. Oh, and it contains a brief but lovely cameo by Tom Jones, too.
James Corden (pictured as Jamie in Mammals) was lured overseas to the US in 2015 to host The Late Late Show. The actor is returning to the UK to star in new Prime Video series Mammals
Chef Jamie (Corden) and his sexy, pregnant wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling), ensconced in their cute London mews house, seem madly in love. Flashbacks show us how he wooed her when he was a junior cook on a yacht on which she was a passenger – at that point engaged to someone else.
In the present day, Jamie discovers Amandine is cheating on him and recruits his brother-in-law Jeff (Merlin’s Colin Morgan) to help him figure out who her paramour is. To make matters worse, Henry Lloyd-Hughes’s Jack, despite being a former lover of Amandine’s, still plays a significant role in their lives.
Jeff meanwhile is married to Jamie’s sister Lue (Sally Hawkins), whose surreal subplot sees her imagining herself as an assistant to French fashion designer Coco Chanel.
Yes, Mammals can be bizarre at times and James, who has joined Jez on a Zoom call, describes the confusion he experienced while first reading the script.
‘I remember when I read episode one, four pages in, I was thinking, “OK, I think I know what this is,”’ he recalls. ‘Then five pages later I was going, “Oh, no, it’s not that. It’s this…”
‘Then about ten pages after that I thought, “OK, I’ve no idea what this is or where it’s going, but I cannot wait to do it.”’
James Corden with guests Benedict Cumberbatch and Kylie Minogue. The late-night talk show and its hit comedy segments including Carpool Karaoke – in which James drives around singing with huge names
At face value Jamie is simply being cuckolded by Amandine, but Mammals pours scepticism on the possibility of any long-term relationship succeeding. ‘I think it says relationships are hard,’ muses Jez, who has two daughters with his partner, actress Laura Donnelly, as well as two from a previous relationship.
‘They’re funny, tragic and comic all at once. You watch a couple getting married and you think, “You poor people.”
‘Not because it’s not going to work, but because the work involved is going to be Sisyphean,’ he says, referring to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill forever, as it kept rolling down when he neared the top.
‘You’re asking something to stand still in a hurricane,’ Jez continues. ‘We turn around after a year and don’t know who we’re in bed with. It’s difficult, and I want this to bear that out and to perhaps make that concept a bit easier.’
I think the story is saying relationships are hard – they are funny, tragic and comic all at once. – Jez Butterworth
To encapsulate his idea, he cast Tom Jones to appear as himself in episode one. ‘If Mammals is about monogamy versus polygamy, Tom Jones achieved both,’ explains Jez.
‘He’s almost like the god of both ideas. He was married to one person for decades and, by his own admission, has had hundreds of lovers, so he exists at both ends of the spectrum of the story we’re trying to explore. He’s the embodiment of it.
‘I thought it would be lovely to have him show up near the start and cast that light across the whole thing,’ he says. ‘At the same time, I think it’s delightfully wrong-footing that he appears at the moment Jamie is about to disappear down the rabbit hole.
‘Jamie sees a whale and Tom Jones in the same five seconds.’ Another feature that’s never fully explained is that Jamie sees whales at unexpected moments.
Melia and Henry as Amandine and Jack in the James’ new series Mammals. Amandine plays Jamie’s (James Corden) wife who is cheating on him
Filming in London, Cornwall and Monaco sounds like it was fairly tense, given Covid restrictions and James’s US contract leaving little time for cast bonding. ‘To steal a line from Jerry Maguire, shooting this show at points was an “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” just trying to get through, because I had a limited block of time,’ James explains.
‘It was made very clear to me that I had to be back on a certain date to host the chat show, so there wasn’t time to sit around laughing.’ Nonetheless, they pulled it out of the bag, particularly James.
Mammals is driven by his performance, which requires him to navigate emotional depths as well as deliver laugh-out-loud moments. He credits Jez’s script with being top-quality material.
At face value Jamie is simply being cuckolded by Amandine (pictured), but Mammals pours scepticism on the possibility of any long-term relationship succeeding
Speaking about a heartbreaking scene between Jamie and Amandine, he says, ‘The truth is, it’s just right there on the page.
‘I don’t think I ever read it without my eyes filling with tears. It’s been a while since I’ve done something like this, and I found it incredibly rewarding.’
Indeed it was making Mammals that played a part in his decision to call time on his US chat show. He’ll leave next year, after eight years.
His time in America hasn’t all been a picnic. He was involved in a very public spat with a New York restaurant after claiming they’d messed up his allergic wife’s egg white-free omelette.
He explained on his show, ‘As her meal came wrong to the table the third time, in the heat of the moment I made a sarcastic rude comment, about cooking it myself. It is a comment I deeply regret.’
It’s interesting to note that in person James, 44, is a far more thoughtful version of his over-the-top onscreen persona. When the PR tries to bring our interview to an end after the allotted time, James insists on staying to answer my questions.
‘As soon as I took the chat show job, I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever,’ he explains.
I don’t think I ever read it without my eyes filling with tears. I found it incredibly rewarding. – James Corden
‘I didn’t think it would be my choice to leave, I thought the show would get cancelled in six months. I always knew I wasn’t going to be doing it 20 years later, in the same way Ruth Jones and I knew we wouldn’t be writing Gavin & Stacey into series seven and eight.’
When Jez sent him the script in 2019, James was already contemplating his exit from the chat show – Mammals just seems to have hastened it – and he’s now selling his LA home.
‘I don’t think there’s an actor in the world who wouldn’t be intrigued by anything written by Jez,’ says James. ‘If for the rest of my life I just got to say his words, I’d be the most contented performer on Earth.
‘So I’ve always thought I was going to leave, and the experience of shooting Mammals cemented that for me. I love The Late Late Show and I’m so proud of it, but it just made me think, “Maybe there’s something else for me that I might be able to manifest in the right way. Maybe there’s another adventure out there.”’
Moving back from a barnstorming gig in US light entertainment to the nuanced world of acting hasn’t fazed him.
That’s perhaps unsurprising, given he spent two decades acting in series such as Fat Friends, hit movie The History Boys and the musical One Man, Two Guvnors, for which he won a Tony Award in 2012. He doesn’t see much difference between hosting a chat show and acting.
‘It’s all acting,’ he says. ‘That’s the thing no one’s really grasped. Every single bit of it is a performance.
‘It’s odd – I had a moment in my career where people thought I was from Essex [as Gavin & Stacey’s Smithy was] and they’d buy me pints. Now sometimes I meet people and they’re disappointed if I’m not turned up to 11, which you have to be when you’re hosting a show like The Late Late Show. Let’s be honest, it’s all fun and games.
‘People were surprised when I got The Late Late Show, but that’s all you want to do, isn’t it? Just keep surprising people.’
- Mammals is available from Friday on Prime Video.
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