22 Dec 2002: Rob Brydon is acclaimed for his comic portrayal of a cuckolded husband. So what’s he doing on a cruise?

Rob Brydon is watching himself intently on a small screen. He scowls and says to no one in particular: ‘Oh dear, do I look a bit ginger under the stage lights?’ He wanders out of the gloomy film studio and across some puddles to his Winnebago. The overheated trailer, parked in a corner of Shepperton Studios, is all brown fabrics and fraying shag-pile carpet. Brydon sits down and poses for some pictures. ‘Do I look like Al Pacino?’ he asks in his soft, well-educated Welsh accent. The photographer laughs.

Brydon picks up his iPod. ‘Would you like me to bore you to death? I just bought this huge Apple computer and so far I’ve downloaded about 480 songs on to the iPod. There’s room for 4,000 you know.’ He scrolls down the list of tracks: ‘Barbra Streisand, which obviously marks me out as a camp bugger. Blonde on Blonde. “Born to Run”. More Bruce Springsteen. Billy Joel. Lots of Tom Jones.’

He reluctantly puts down the gadget, takes a look at his unremarkable outfit, and starts to undress. ‘Just in case people think these are my own clothes.’ In his brown zip-up jumper he looks much the same; in fact, Rob Brydon always looks pretty much the same. Short brown hair with a hint of red, pallid skin marked by the ‘Olympic acne’ he suffered as a teenager, medium build, medium height. Yet the apparent ordinariness belies a great talent: that of transforming himself effortlessly into a myriad of characters.

His most celebrated creation is Keith Barret, the Welsh minicab driver whose wife, Marion, has eloped with Geoff, a fellow sales rep at her pharmaceuticals company. When the first series of Marion and Geoff was broadcast on BBC2 in 10-minute monologues back in 2001, it quickly became a cult classic. It was also recognised by the establishment; it picked up an award for best drama at the South Bank Show Awards and Brydon was given the prestigious accolade of best comedy newcomer at the British Comedy Awards.

The format of Marion and Geoff is deceptively simple; Keith drives around London in his minicab, chatting gently in his broad Welsh accent to a camcorder fixed to the dashboard, recording a video diary about his hopeless personal life, his ex-wife and kids. He is endlessly optimistic, defining himself in the very first episode with these words: ‘The way I see it, I haven’t lost a wife. I’ve gained a friend.’ He talks emotionally about his two boys, Rhys and Alun, and sits alone in his car for hours outside Marion and Geoff’s new house hoping to catch a glimpse of his ‘little smashers’.

The brilliance of Marion and Geoff lies in its perfectly timed comic pathos; the audience is moved from laughter to tears in the space of a moment. Yet Brydon can be even darker and edgier. In Human Remains, an outstanding series of six comedy dramas in which he starred alongside Julia Davis, Brydon explored the extreme behaviour of strange couples. Again, it was so raw it often felt inappropriate to laugh.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Steve Coogan’s Brighton-based production company, Baby Cow, is behind both Marion and Geoff and Human Remains. Alan Partridge could easily be Keith’s first cousin; although brasher, his perception of reality is equally distorted. ‘Steve has been around a long time and he’s done some terrific stuff, which obviously has its similarities with what I do. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.’

In turn, Steve Coogan remembers Julia Davis, who was appearing on his live tour, handing him a video and encouraging him to watch it. ‘It was a very crude version of Marion and Geoff , but straight away I thought it was great. It was clear that Rob was doing something different and funny. There was a real bleakness and sadness. He is covering similar territory to me, but his work is genuine and moving. Sometimes you feel uncomfortable with Alan, sometimes you feel sorry for him, but Marion and Geoff actually moved me to tears.’

He pauses, then laughs nervously. ‘It’s very odd for me. If I wasn’t working with Rob, I’d probably feel threatened by him. He’s brilliant. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s my soulmate artistically. And what a weird background. He hasn’t had the classic comedy background at all, which also makes him different and interesting.’

Brydon found fame at a late age, in his mid-thirties. He always did silly voices as a kid, admired Basil Brush, Dick Emery, the two Ronnies, Barry Humphries and John Cleese. He was very good at impressions, especially Tom Jones and Anthony Hopkins. He played the lead in school productions at his private day school – he is pretty sure that Catherine Zeta-Jones, a few years younger, would have watched him play Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, though he is equally sure she would never remember him – and he was always certain he’d make it as a comedian. But it took much longer than he anticipated.

He was in his second year at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff when Radio Wales offered him a show. ‘It wasn’t comedy, of course. It was anodyne early-morning DJing. I couldn’t even play my own choice of records. Not that I was about to slip in the Clash, more like “I Just Can’t Help Believing” by Elvis.’

In 1992, after working on Radio Wales for six years, Brydon hosted a movie show for BSkyB. He moved on to a cable shopping channel and began to think that he might not make it after all. ‘I was a mediocre presenter and I had yet to really find my voice. I had started to do Keith in a very broad form on radio but nothing came of it. I was never on any list. Not even the tiniest of lists. Not even the bottom of lists. Not even on a list of people trying to get on to a list.’

He worried about getting old; in 1995, he hit 30. As the voice of Toilet Duck and Sudafed, he was never short of money, but he wanted to make people laugh, not go shopping. He read William Goldman and quoted to himself from America’s most prominent screenwriter: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ He told himself there were no rules in showbusiness. ‘If you want to be in a teen soap like Hollyoaks , then age is going to matter. Looks are going to matter. But if you want to do bittersweet, pathos-laden comedy, then you’re alright. I’m still not getting Hollyoaks call-backs which is more than a shame. It’s like a knife.’

Finally, Brydon got lucky; he bumped into Hugo Blick in the corridors of the BBC. They had been at college together, but had lost touch. Brydon gave the comedy producer a video of his characters and within an hour Blick was on the phone, enthusing about Keith Barret, arranging a meeting. Blick is now co-writer, director and producer on Marion and Geoff. Brydon feels that without that chance meeting, he might have lost his will to be funny. ‘Presenting a cable shopping channel seems a world away from doing Marion and Geoff . If someone had told me who I’d be working with now or the kind of reception I’ve had over the past two or three years, I’m not sure I would have believed them. It’s exactly as I would have wanted it to be. I don’t think that happens very often.’

Rob Brydon sits in his overheated trailer eating a plate of lamb, new potatoes and carrots. He has had another pretty good year, making a new series of Marion and Geoff (in which he will be the chauffeur of an American family) and filming Cruise of the Gods, a 90-minute comedy drama, around the Mediterranean and in Shepperton. Directed by Declan Lowney, who made his name on Father Ted and Cold Feet , it is the tale of Andy Van Allen, the fallen hero of a cult Eighties futuristic TV show who is working as a hotel porter, but who is unable to resist the offer of being the star guest on a fan cruise.

Steve Coogan was going to play the lead until he decided Rob Brydon might be better. ‘How very grown-up and modest of me, don’t you think? Although I have to admit that when we were first on set, I kept giving notes to Rob, forgetting that he could do it on his own. He’s very good, too; he’s delivered a grown-up, mature, understated role.’

Taking the back seat, Coogan plays Nick Lee, Van Allen’s former co-star, who has become a huge celebrity as the star of Sherlock Holmes in Miami. The cast of Cruise of the Gods is impressive; alongside Brydon and Coogan is the talented young trio of David Walliams, James Corden and Helen Coker. ‘You should have seen photos of me and Walliams in Venice,’ says Brydon. ‘We look like Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton visiting Morocco.’

Apart from being camp with Walliams, Brydon says the biggest challenge for him was taking on a character who is down on his luck but who goes on an emotional journey. It seems his natural inclination is to play hopelessly downtrodden guys who have little hope of changing. He smiles. ‘I suppose so. Keith is pretty sad. But I don’t think it’s a case of ignorance is bliss. In his private moments, he knows very well that things are bad. But once he’s in the car and the camera is there, occasionally his resolve will slip and maybe there’s a look in the eye and you hear a little crack in the voice.’

For a long time, Brydon pretended that Keith had nothing to do with him, that he was simply a comic creation born of observation. Then he realised there was little use pretending; all the characters he plays embody aspects of him. The fact that Brydon is separated from his wife and only sees his three young sons at weekends isn’t entirely unconnected from Keith’s situation, although Brydon does have a girlfriend. As Coogan admits he carries Alan Partridge around with him, so Keith Barret is part of Brydon. ‘Steve could spend the whole day being Alan and I could as Keith. If I’m honest, I do end up playing characters that are inside, waiting to get out. I think you make it easier on yourself if you find a character you are comfortable with.’

Outside the trailer, David Walliams is leaving for the day. He shouts goodbye. Brydon peers out of the window. ‘Dreadful man,’ he says sotto voce in actorly tones. ‘Absolutely awful. Me, me, me all the time. Matt Lucas deserves a bloody medal for working with him on Rock Profile, honestly. Look at him standing there. Glad to see the back of him. Bugger off!’ He whips the nylon curtain across the window and for a moment manages not to smile.

Although he admits to being a bit up and down, Brydon is pretty happy right now. At the age of 37, he is finally doing a job he loves. We talk about his heroes: Barry Humphries for saying outrageous things and pleading innocence, Peter Glaze from Crackerjack for the same mock naivété, Mel Brooks for giving hilarious interviews. Although a lot of contemporary comedy owes something to Mike Leigh, from The Royle Family and The Office to Human Remains, Brydon says he’s not too familiar with anything other than Life is Sweet and Secrets and Lies. He much prefers Woody Allen, particularly the ‘gorgeous’ Annie Hall, although he worries about the ageing director: ‘He is looking very frail. I think he might blow away.’

He is full of admiration for the acting prowess of Anthony Hopkins, but really Rob Brydon wants to be Al Pacino. ‘He gives such beautiful, sensitive performances. His face in Insomnia is like a national monument,’ he says. Pushing away the half-eaten lamb, Rob Brydon suddenly looks worried for a moment. ‘Do you think I looked like Al Pacino in my photo?’ And it’s hard to know if it’s appropriate to laugh.

· Cruise of the Gods is on BBC2 at 9pm on 23 December. The second series of Marion and Geoff will start on BBC2 in February.