April 28 2009: Rob Brydon is best known as funny Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey. Does his stand-up reveal a sharper side?
It’s Friday so it must be St Albans, the commuter town that, in 2007, replaced Mayfair as the most expensive square on the board in a special edition of Monopoly. Cities don’t come more middle-class than this. Not that there’s much sign of affluence deep inside the grandly named Alban Arena. Several flights of municipal concrete stairs lead to an absurdly unglamorous backstage area.
A sign on the dressing-room door, written in permanent marker, announces the presence of “Harry and Dobbin”. Inside, however, is a sleek MacBook with its screensaver of a family having fun in the sun, a bottle of water and Rob Brydon. He’s frowning at the harsh, unforgiving lighting. He flicks the switches on and off to find “mood lighting”. It suddenly goes dark. “That’s a step too far,” announces a disembodied Welsh voice sternly.
Brydon gives up with the lights and we sit instead on nasty tartan sofas in a communal area. He has been doing a stand-up tour of Britain since February and next month he’ll be taking up a two-week residency at the Apollo Theatre in London. This is the first tour under his own name. In previous outings he has appeared on stage as Keith Barret, the pitiable cab driver whose wife Marion has run off with Geoff. Marion and Geoff, which was initially broadcast on BBC Two in 2000, quickly became a cult classic and won a handful of comedy awards.
It made sense for Brydon to exploit the success of Marion and Geoff, which is why he has often taken him out on the road. Disguised as Barret, Brydon was able to push the boundaries of audience interaction. He once got away with calling a woman morbidly obese because “part of the joke is Keith’s insensitivity”. On his current tour there’s nowhere to hide.
Although venues have been selling out — as Brydon himself says, his role as the eccentric, camp Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey swept him into the mainstream and recently gave him a second Bafta nomination — some critics have yet to be won over. A review in this paper suggested that “Brydon is a consummate performer who hasn’t really found his stand-up voice”. Other reviews have pointed to a half-written show.
A cynic could argue that the show is a series of sketches and as such lacks a coherent voice. The 90 minutes are still dominated by audience interaction. In St Albans, the overwhelmingly middle-class audience roar with laughter as a man panics when addressed by Brydon. His age drops from 78 to 58, while the young woman next to him is first his girlfriend and then his niece. Brydon is a great impressionist and his skit about a phone being lost at the bottom of a woman’s cluttered bag is particularly memorable for the “small voice” he does — it sounds exactly like someone at the other end of a muffled mobile.
I suggest that the show is like a one-man version of Britain’s Got Talent. Brydon laughs. “You can say anything you like, I can take it. Really, I don’t mind. I am richly rewarded — I have a pretty damn good life — and so I have to put up with criticism. Although I’m not always this stoic about it.” He reaches for a grape and points out that two of his friends have been critically mauled recently. “Steve Coogan got an absolute kicking on his recent tour. But he’s still Steve Coogan, one of the most talented, gifted people I’ve met. And James Corden has had a kicking too, but he’s still a very talented boy. I’ve always thought he was going to be the next Orson Welles.”
Brydon watched Corden’s fierce commitment to the first series of Gavin & Stacey fade by the second; by then he’d become a tabloid fixture and appeared more interested in his new lifestyle than in work. “I took James out for lunch around that time and asked him what he was doing, told him he was going to throw it all away. James was very young, very hungry, very ambitious. He wanted America. He was elevated by the media incredibly — he couldn’t have been hotter — so there was only one way to go. It was unlucky that both his film [Lesbian Vampire Killers] and his sketch show came out at the same time and created a shit storm. I watched Horne and Corden and it’s not for me but the kids love it.”
Brydon points out that nobody likes to be publicly criticised. “I’m sure it hurt Steve and James and it hurts me too. So shoot me. Stand-up comedy really is the most subjective art form — if it can indeed be called an art form — and so it’s almost impossible to review. What I do is this: go out and entertain my audience for 90 minutes. That’s all there is to it. I entertain them by whatever means I can.” And he’s not going to change his show to please the critics.
However, he admits that, once he’d decided he no longer wanted to tour as Keith Barret, he had to force himself to book the current tour. He wasn’t sure who he should be on stage. Brydon’s background is not in stand-up comedy and so he’s never had to slog around the circuit and learn the hard way. He started his career as a DJ on BBC Wales, earned a pot of money doing television voiceovers, broke through with Marion and Geoff when he was in his mid-thirties, struck comedy gold with Gavin & Stacey.
After Humphrey Lyttleton’s death last year, Brydon, Stephen Fry and Jack Dee will be taking over as joint hosts of Radio 4’s long-running comedy panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in June; Brydon has also taken over from Angus Deayton as host of the new series of Would I Lie To You? But while the panel shows are going extremely well, Brydon freely admits that he is still trying to find his stand-up comedy persona. So how close is the onstage Brydon to the real Rob Brydon? “If you give too much of yourself away in this business you risk becoming an open wound. So you show what you want to show. It’s amorphous, it’s always shifting. I portray myself on stage as being insensitive — turning the television to mute, for example, as my son Tom is being born — but if anything I’m oversensitive in everyday life.”
Brydon is widely seen as a nice guy. “Well yes, I can see why people would say that. But I can also be quite petulant; I can be short tempered and I can also be a bit of a shit.” He also stops just short of being cruel on stage. He’s more Barry Humphries than Russell Brand but then Humphries can be sadistic. “Yes, but for my taste Barry Humphries’s is a sharp cruelty on a bed of warmth and compassion. For my part, when I ask an audience member about being divorced, I’m celebrating life’s failings, from which we all suffer.”
He certainly isn’t shy about finding humour in his own failings, including his own divorce almost a decade ago and his second marriage, to Claire, a few years ago. I mention his reference to Claire in the current show — “I got famous and got a younger, blonder wife” — but he jumps in before I finish. “It’s entirely ironic. It’s interesting; I said it at the start of the tour but then I stopped. My ex-wife ended up with a female journalist on her doorstep asking her how she felt about it. She just laughed and said: ‘That’s him, he’s a comedian. It’s what he does. It’s a joke.’ My lovely ex-wife declined to give her side. I was very proud of her. It was the response I suspected she’d give but you never know . . . I was really, really pleased.”
He insists that he didn’t drop the younger wife line because of the journalist. “A few friends who came to see me pointed to a few moments that jarred. The younger wife joke was a slight on me — that I’d be shallow enough to do something like that — but perhaps it’s too subtle in the end. It goes back to finding what your persona is. As I said, I’m the nice guy. My panel-show style is not particularly shocking. I can enjoy Never Mind the Buzzcocks and 8 Out of 10 Cats but I wouldn’t fit into those environments. They are much harsher, more gladiatorial. I prefer something that’s a bit more gentle but just as sharp.”
It may all sound rather sedate but then you have to remember that Brydon has had his dark days. When he co-wrote Marion and Geoff with Hugo Blick, an old college friend, he was separating from his wife and was in a desperate place; he also co-wrote Human Remains with Julia Davis, a brilliant television series about dysfunctional relationships. Almost a decade on, he’s married to Claire (who, for the record, is eight years younger than Brydon, who’s about to turn 44) and they have a child, Tom, who is 1. He has a good relationship with his ex and sees his three older kids at weekends. “Things,” he says, stuffing a chocolate éclair in his mouth, “have never been better.”
Rob Brydon has never wanted to be like Russell Brand; since his divorce he’s craved stability in his life. Comedy is not the new rock’n’roll for Brydon, it’s the new MOR. Nonetheless, he enjoys huge respect from edgier comedians. I once asked Steve Coogan, whose production company Baby Cow worked on Marion and Geoff, and who co-starred with Brydon in Michael Winterbottom’s film A Cock and Bull Story, what he made of Brydon. He enthused about him having comic skill “in spades”, then remarked that he was “on” all the time.
I remind Brydon of this and he raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, compared with Steve, who is off all the time. Let’s have some joy about whatever gift it is we’ve been given! Steve has this peculiar gift and yet he rarely wants to play.” Brydon is clearly bored by Coogan’s reluctance to do impressions (which he does at least as well as Brydon) and be silly with friends. The two rarely see one another these days; Brydon is much closer to Little Britain’s David Walliams, who was an usher at his wedding. Whenever they talk on the phone, both pretend to be affronted about something or other and enjoy camp frippery.
Yet, despite his famous friends — who also number Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant — Brydon is never going to be cool. But although he may possibly be so uncool that he’s actually cool, he is perfectly happy being the kind of comedian made for St Albans. He did, after all, ask the co-creators of Gavin & Stacey, James Corden and Ruth Jones, to remove unnecessary swear words from their script. And he’s clear about his own agenda. “I’m not political. There isn’t a unifying thought to the show other than wanting to make the audience laugh. If my show has a cabaret element to it, then guilty as charged . . .”
Yes, but does he wish he was cool? “I’ve got to be realistic about who and what I am. I’m not a Noel Fielding. I’m not a Mathew Horne. I listen to Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen. I went to see Billy Joel with Peter Kay. We had a fantastic night. Billy Joel is a brilliant song writer so I don’t care [what people think of him]. Evidently I’m in the uncool segment of the Venn diagram. But you are what you are.” And it’s probably no more complicated than that. Rob Brydon — comedian, actor, father, husband, possibly in reverse order — is happy and nothing else matters.
Rob Brydon is at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 (www.apollo-theatre-london.co.uk), May 11-30. His tour continues tonight at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool