EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '98: David Baddiel and Rob Who?

Rob Newman has been out of the limelight since he broke up with his more famous stand-up partner. But now his profile is rising again. Interview by James Rampton
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FAME IS a fair-weather friend. A couple of years out of the headlines, and it won't nod at you in the street anymore. It won't even return your phone calls.

Rob Newman has been finding that out the hard way, recently. At the height of his celebrity and the "comedy is the new rock'n'roll" hype in 1993, he and his then double-act partner, David Baddiel, were the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of stand-up, the only comedians ever to fill the 12,000- seat Wembley Arena.

In a blizzard of publicity, they split up the very next day. And while Baddiel went storming on to a hit TV show (Fantasy Football), novel (Time for Bed) and single ('Three Lions'), Newman did a pretty good impression of Lord Lucan.

But he is now able to joke about his invisible profile of the past few years. "The other day, they wouldn't let me into my own gig at the Town and Country in Leeds because they didn't know who I was. Instead of saying something cool like: 'Well, let's see if the show happens, then,' I punched the wall in a fit of pique and spent the next two hours in A & E. I'm a southern poofter, so it felt quite rock'n'roll.

"Recently I've also gone to picket-lines. It's meant to be a big confidence boost for them, but it isn't if they don't know who you are. On another occasion, I went along to present a petition about student grants, and I was introduced to Tony Benn. He turned his back on me as if to say, 'Where are the famous people? Where's Paul Weller?'."

If it's any consolation, it looks like Newman will soon be recognisable again to Tony Benn - and others. A much-trumpeted return to the live stage at the Edinburgh Festival this week will be followed next month by a novel, Manners, and a full-scale national tour in the autumn.

As he downs coffee and Marlboro Lights with equal alacrity in a central London cafe, Newman's brown eyes twinkle with excitement at the prospect. He seems refreshed by his spell out of the limelight; indeed, he thinks it might have even been good for his career.

"Because you've been away, you become a more interesting person than you really are. You have a mystique you don't deserve: 'Ooo, what's he been doing?'

He certainly doesn't regret going all Greta Garbo on us. "I got off the treadmill because you can feel like you're losing your soul. I had no time to read; I need to read like some people need to go fishing or have sex. I didn't want to be one of those blokes talking endlessly about the novel in the top drawer. "

Many people would sell their grannies with their grandads thrown in as a special offer to appear on telly, but the magic rectangle lost its allure for Newman, who was involved in such well-regarded BBC2 programmes as The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Newman and Baddiel in Pieces.

"If you're on telly, you can't mix that with writing, because then you're not experiencing life as a normal person. Also, I'm not comfortable on TV. They treat you like an idiot. I'm 34 and they say to you: 'You've got an hour to go, you're not going to go away, are you?' Like I'm going to wander around Wood Green Shopping Centre.

"I like the spontaneity of live comedy. The audience feel they've been part of a show rather than just watching it. If something happens on the spur of the moment on telly, they say: 'That was funny, but your left shoulder was out of the frame. Do it again.'."

Live, Newman can still do the business. He has a fine line in imaginative routines. For instance, he expresses his delight that the Canadian Olympic snowboarder was re-awarded his gold medal after testing positive for marijuana. What possible advantage could dope give you in the competition, he wonders, "unless someone at the other end was holding up a large packet of chocolate Hobnobs, or the finishing-line was by an all-night garage".

But he is not above discussing serious topics on stage; last year he was involved in campaigning for the Liverpool dockers and the Magnet kitchen workers.

"I don't just talk about the difference between cats and dogs and Star Trek. I'm just being contrary, though," he smiles. "Now there are so many stand-ups in jeans being laddish that I'll come on and bore the audience rigid talking about feminism and the international capitalist conspiracy."

But what really marks Newman out as a stand-up is his sense of vulnerability. "My favourite comedians are vulnerable - people like young Steptoe and Stan Laurel. I've tried to be cocksure like Dennis Leary, but it's just not me. The audience can relate to you better if they think: 'Oh, it's not just me who is baffled by stuff and doesn't quite know what's going on.'

"I hate that sneery, cynical tone you get with so many stand-ups, self- possessed geezers talking about how stupid everyone else is. It's that Loaded thing of being wised up and one step ahead. My constituency is three steps behind."

Newman is now mature enough to admit to mistakes in the past. He concedes that "I rushed my first novel [Dependence Day]. There were the bones of a good book there, but it was more like a lot of short stories than a novel."

For all that, he reckons many critics were not attacking the book itself, but the fact that he was a comedian who had had the temerity to write a novel. The interviewers were like Soviet commissars: [adopts Bond villain- style Russian accent] 'You hev a job in the ministry of parks, now you vant to verk in the ministry of transport - vhy?'."

He can now look back on the hysteria that engulfed Newman and Baddiel with amused detachment.

"It all felt like it was happening to someone else. It was just me, David and the dope-smoking lighting guy sitting in a van together; it never felt like a maelstrom. We never moved in celeb circles. Alison Moyet came to one of our gigs. We were very excited. After the show, we even brushed our hair, but she never came backstage."

Despite reports of acrimony of Gallagher brother proportions, Newman maintains that he and Baddiel parted on "really, really good terms".

"Nice things were said. When we bump into each other now, we get on very well. We don't hang out, but it's really warm."

He even claims to like Fantasy Football. "I don't watch much telly, but the couple I've seen have been really good. I'm proud for him. After working with me, he deserves all the nice things that can happen to him. He's like someone who's lived in a Stalinist state suddenly experiencing liberation. I'm glad he's not in an Essex sanatorium rocking back and forth repeating the words: 'I only wanted to change one line in the show.' He's suffered enough."

While Baddiel has indubitably made it, Newman knows he's still got it all to prove. "I like those bands like Blue Nile or Prefab Sprout who go away for a few years and then come back with something brilliant. I've shown that I can do the going away for a few years bit. It's the second half I've got to work on."

Rob Newman is at the Edinburgh Suite, Assembly, Edinburgh (0131-226 2428) until 31 Aug. His novel, 'Manners', is published next month.