Rob Bry­don and the art of be­ing silly

Cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion brings out the best in ac­tor Rob Bry­don

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Chris Har­vey

Rob Bry­don is in a cafe in sleepy Teddington, close to his west Lon­don home. He looks like he does on tele­vi­sion, but close up the brown eyes are ex­pres­sive. And that voice, with its re­ceived-pro­nun­ci­a­tion hued Welsh­ness and all-em­brac­ing bon­homie that has lent it­self to ad­verts selling ev­ery­thing from Toi­let Duck to Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, is a marvel. It has so many lay­ers of irony: from the faintest sub­tle wash of it — he doesn’t mind if you catch this or not, it’s enough he knows it’s there — to the broad­est block colours for your en­ter­tain­ment.

We see a lot of Bry­don. As an ac­tor, game show host and panel show reg­u­lar, he has be­come a fully fledged light en­ter­tain­ment per­son­al­ity. In fact, we see so much of Bry­don it’s easy to for­get he has been in some of the best TV comedies of the 21st cen­tury, in­clud­ing The Trip and The Trip to Italy.

He’s a fam­ily man, with two sons from his sec­ond mar­riage to TV pro­ducer Claire Hol­land. (He has two daugh­ters and a son from his first mar­riage: “There’s some­thing lovely about hav­ing five — when they sur­round you, that’s a nice feel­ing, you know.”) He finds it hard to un­der­stand peo­ple who don’t have chil­dren: “Some of my con­tem­po­raries don’t have chil­dren and I just think, what the hell do you do all day?”

Bry­don, I should men­tion, is do­ing his level best not to give an opin­ion about any­thing. We’re do­ing a lit­tle dance. I’m ask­ing. He’s po­litely de­clin­ing.

“I find it very hard to come down on any side of an ar­gu­ment, I’m al­ways hov­er­ing around. I’m al­ways go­ing, ‘yeah but you know’,” he says. It in­fu­ri­ates peo­ple. “I had a big row with [Steve] Coogan when we were film­ing The Trip to Italy at this beau­ti­ful res­tau­rant, he re­ally got …” (he slips into Coogan’s Manch­ester ac­cent and raises his voice) “‘Why won’t you nail your colours to the mast …!?’ ”

What were they ar­gu­ing about? “Oh, I don’t know; he’ll ar­gue about any­thing. It could have been the salt and pep­per.”

Bry­don says he can’t face the flak from so­cial media for say­ing the wrong thing. He has been stung be­fore. Be­fore the Scot­tish ref­er­en­dum, he put his name to a pro-union let­ter. “That was one of my bet­ter de­ci­sions,” he says. “Like wav­ing a stick at a wasp’s nest.”

He thinks of him­self as Welsh rather than Bri­tish. He grew up in South Wales, where his fa­ther was a car dealer, and his mother did lots of jobs, in­clud­ing teach­ing. At 50, he says, he feels he’s turn­ing into his fa­ther to a “ter­ri­fy­ing de­gree, where I al­most feel I don’t have my own per­son­al­ity”. He can see the roots of his com­edy in his par­ents, too, the sharp­ness from his mother and the joc­u­lar­ity from his fa­ther.

The fam­ily lived first in Port Tal­bot, where he went to pri­vate school, then later in Porth­cawl, where he trans­ferred to the lo­cal com­pre­hen­sive at the age of 14. It was there that he dis­cov­ered his love of drama. Fel­low pupil Ruth Jones would go on to write Gavin & Stacey, in which he ap­peared. Bry­don won the drama prize in his year and au­di­tioned for the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art.

He did a piece from Harold Pin­ter’s The Home­com­ing, which, he says now, he didn’t un­der­stand. “I did a song from Carousel, which I’d per­formed at school … [lit­tle daub of irony] to some ac­claim.” He didn’t get in.

Meet­ing Pin­ter many years later, he told him: “I can’t help think­ing if you’d tried a lit­tle harder with the writ­ing, it would have been a dif­fer­ent story.”

Does his RADA rejection still ran­kle? “Nooo. I’ve had a far more suc­cess­ful ca­reer than a hell of a lot of peo­ple that went to RADA. That’s a fact. But it’s also a fact of the lottery of this busi­ness. It’s a phe­nom­e­nally hard busi­ness to get suc­cess­ful in, it’s heart­break­ingly hard.”

Bry­don speaks from ex­pe­ri­ence. He talks al­most with in­com­pre­hen­sion of Coogan’s Fer­rari-driv­ing early fame, while he was still stuck on the “low­est rung of want­ing to get on the radar of cast­ing di­rec­tors”: “Even now, I never get a job I’ve au­di­tioned for. I’m so un­com­fort­able in that sit­u­a­tion and re­sent­ful of the power. Ev­ery­thing that I’m in I’ve just been of­fered.”

He stud­ied at the Royal Welsh Col­lege of Mu­sic and Drama in Cardiff. It was there that he met Hugo Blick, the cel­e­brated au­teur di­rec­tor of The Honourable Woman, with whom Bry­don would later col­lab­o­rate on BBC Two’s com­edy Mar­ion and Ge­off, with Bry­don as mini­cab driver Keith Bar­rett, whose wife Mar­ion has left him for a work col­league.

Bry­don be­lieves him­self far bet­ter at col­lab­o­rat­ing than he is at steer­ing his own ship. “The proof is on the ta­ble. I think my best stuff has al­ways been with a strong other per­son.”

We talk about The Trip, Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s rich, so­phis­ti­cated, im­pro­vised dou­ble header in which he and Coogan play du­elling ver­sions of them­selves, pit­ting their gifts for im­pres­sions — Michael Caine, Al Pa­cino, Michael Parkin­son — against one another. It’s not the first time he has played “Rob Bry­don”.

“Oh yeah. Here’s what I’ll say about that. My heart sinks … if you don’t like The Trip, I com- pletely see where you’re com­ing from be­cause if I see a thing where it says ‘play­ing a ver­sion of them­selves’ I want to vomit.

“That’s why we didn’t want to do it. We turned him down twice.”

Does it blur his sense of iden­tity? “Not mine but it blurs it for other peo­ple un­doubt­edly (he slips into a con­ver­sa­tion with him­self) ‘Is that your real wife in there?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are those Steve’s par­ents then?’ ‘No, of course not.’ ‘Did you re­ally have a fling with that girl?’ ‘Well no, of course not.’ ”

As for his tal­ent for voice im­pres­sions, he says: “I am more and more of the opin­ion that it’s some stupid trick, you know. The num­ber of peo­ple that ask me to do the small man in the box voice and re­act with rap­ture when I do … ‘That’s so clever’ … No, it’s not, it’s a trick.”

He says he and Coogan are much more sub­dued to­gether off cam­era. As for the one-up­man­ship, Bry­don (who got his big break from Coogan af­ter he sent the em­bry­onic Mar­ion and Ge­off to him) says, “I’m prob­a­bly his big­gest fan.”

I men­tion that his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Blick, Coogan and Ju­lia Davis in Hu­man Re­mains, the com­edy where he and Davis play a dif­fer­ent (usu­ally mis­er­able) cou­ple in ev­ery episode, re­veal a darker side to his com­edy. Does he need oth­ers to bring it out in him?

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve felt that get­ting older has taken me away from that. It’s a part of me, we did quite a few can­cer jokes in Hu­man Re­mains and I was 34, 35 when we were writ­ing that, and I’m 50 now and there’s part of me that’s not quite so keen to make jokes about can­cer be­cause it seems far more like a pos­si­bil­ity. I think it’s very dan­ger­ous that we’re in a cul­ture of apol­o­gis­ing. Some­times I think it would be bet­ter to say, ‘ Were you of­fended by that? Oh well, there you go.’

“Known as I am as one of Bri­tain’s most shock­ing co­me­di­ans,” he adds.

As a panel show reg­u­lar, what does he make of the edict about in­clud­ing at least one fe­male co­me­dian on ev­ery panel?

“I’m so wary of an­swer­ing this …” he says. “I’m a purist,” he de­cides even­tu­ally. “There are funny men and funny women. We’ve had plenty of funny women on Would I Lie to You, of­ten not co­me­di­ans.”

But, he ad­mits, “I’ve never liked it when any­body says, ‘It’s hard for me be­cause I’m just start­ing out, it’s hard for me be­cause I’m a woman, it’s hard for me be­cause I’m Welsh.’ Bug­ger off. Get on with it. It’s sim­ple. You have to have some­thing some­body else wants.”

The opin­ion­ated Bry­don has plenty.

The Tele­graph

Rob Bry­don stars in Would I Lie to You, Sun­days, 6pm, ABC; The Trip on Fox­tel’s Com­edy Chan­nel, Mon­day, 4.35pm; and the film The Hunts­man, re­leased next year.

I THINK MY BEST STUFF HAS AL­WAYS BEEN WITH A STRONG OTHER PER­SON

ROB BRY­DON

Clock­wise from above, Rob Bry­don; with Ju­lia Davis in Hu­man Re­mains; with Steve Coogan in The Trip

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