Rob Brydon and the art of being silly
Creative collaboration brings out the best in actor Rob Brydon
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.
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
Clockwise from above, Rob Brydon; with Julia Davis in Human Remains; with Steve Coogan in The Trip