Ben Bailey Smith: Out of the shadow, into the limelight
He was raised to believe anything was possible. Now, thanks to Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith is enjoying his own purple patch
Ben Bailey Smith, younger brother of the novelist Zadie Smith, regularly visits his mother in north-west London. The house he grew up in remains full of books, with one shelf devoted entirely to the countless foreign translations of his sister's debut novel, White Teeth, an instant classic and publishing phenomenon upon its release in 2000.
"I just go to sit and stare at them all," he tells me in a West London café, shaking his head. "It's inspiring, and it proves to me that you really can have an idea that goes out and touches the whole world."
But the pressure to do something with similar impact is inevitable. He grew up, after all, with the unswerving conviction that he too would be recognised far and wide for his natural talent. But Bailey Smith has had to wait far longer than his sister for public recognition. He is now a 34-year-old father of two living in Dalston, north-east London, with his wife, who teaches part-time. Over the past decade he has dabbled in music, acting, writing and, more recently, stand-up comedy. Finally, a ball has been set rolling, and if Ricky Gervais has anything to do with it, he is at last poised to have his moment in the sun.
"Ricky watched my stuff on YouTube a while back and loved it," he says. "He called me up one afternoon. I was in my garden at the time, and I just told myself: stay calm, stay calm, and whatever he says to you, say yes." Gervais suggested they work together. He said yes. He has supported him on tour and tonight appears in Derek, the comedian's new sitcom on Channel 4.
"I'm in a purple patch right now," he beams. "And I'm going to enjoy it. It's been a long time coming."
Ben Bailey Smith, the middle child of three, was born to an English father and a Jamaican mother in Willesden. His father worked in direct-mail advertising, his mother was a social worker, but both Zadie and Ben (and their younger brother Luke, a rapper) were raised with the mindset that anything was possible, and that all three were capable of anything. With Zadie, this was evident early on.
"Oh, she was such a prodigy at school," he recalls. "The teachers always thought I was going to match her, but I had to tell them that, actually, no, this was my level: monkeying around in the playground."
By the time Zadie was at Cambridge, Bailey Smith had immersed himself in hip-hop culture, and was attending London battle raps in which underground hip-hop acts competed with each other on stage to see who had the better impromptu rhyme. These events were often mired in violence.
As White Teeth was published, Bailey Smith, then 22, reinvented himself as hip-hop artist Doc Brown, and signed to a major label. But in 2000, pre Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah, Britain wasn't quite ready for any rapper who wasn't from America. The deal soon soured.
"Back then, it was a pretty non-existent scene," he says, "an alternative lifestyle that nobody took seriously – like being a goth. The only rap that had any credibility came from the US, not north-west London."
In 2005, he hooked up with Mark Ronson, playing to festival crowds of more than 40,000. But Ronson had other people in his touring line-up, among them Amy Winehouse and a young Lily Allen, both of whom shone brighter. Bailey Smith's role in the band became increasingly redundant, and so, aged 28 and already a father, he quit the band.
"That was a difficult time," he says. "I'd always been convinced I'd make my mark in music, so when it didn't pan out, I ended up in a very dark place. I suppose you could say now, with hindsight, that that was the perfect bedfellow, the perfect conduit, for becoming a comedian, but at that time I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
He was in fact considering a job as a spokesman for the anti-racism charity Kick It Out when an old friend called asking him to help co-write an urban Radio 4 comedy vehicle for Lenny Henry, called Rudy's Rare Records. What he produced was smart and funny, and he was subsequently invited to open mic nights, where he was even funnier, recounting his hapless hip-hop past to a mainstream, and largely white, audience. Appearances on radio and television followed, where he eventually came to the attention of Gervais. The pair bonded and Gervais offered him the support slot on an upcoming tour of Norway.
"It was really cosmopolitan, and everybody spoke English," he says. "I was pumped up every night, and he would watch me from the side of the stage, laughing wildly. He told me afterwards that he had a bunch of TV projects coming up and that he was going to crowbar me into them because he thought I was something special."
Which brings us back to Derek. The less-than-promising pilot, with Gervais playing a simpleton care-worker in an old people's home, screened on Channel 4 early last year, but Bailey Smith promises it is much stronger now. He stars in the second episode tonight as a "cocky but uncool" community-service worker.
"The episode I'm in is basically moulded around me, which is pretty bizarre in itself, but, trust me, it's brilliant. There are more projects as well, big ones, but I can't talk about them right now. But suddenly I've got this incredible mentor in Ricky. He's giving me the opportunity to shine, and I'm more than willing to take it."
And so, thanks in part to one of our most divisive comedy superstars, Ben Bailey Smith is at last enjoying his purple patch. The pair have just toured Scandinavia again, in between his own solo shows here in the UK. He was also recently seen in a serious role in the BBC drama Hunted, where he got to scowl and play spies.
He must be very happy. He shrugs. "Yeah, but I pretty much hate everything I do." Why? "Well, I've just been reading my sister's latest book, N-W. Her writing is so profound, so philosophical; it makes you look at life differently. Then I look at my own stuff and think, 'Oh, another knob joke. Great.'"
Perhaps, I suggest, he simply doesn't possess her talent? He's good; she's great. He laughs, and suggests otherwise. "Oh, my own magnum opus is still to come."
'Derek' continues on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4. For live dates see docbrown.co.uk
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