Rob Brydon: Delusions of candour

Rob Brydon created a hit with the misguided Keith in Marion and Geoff. Now he is playing a pretentious TV director. But as Gerard Gilbert hears, this time the BBC wasn't up for it
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The Independent Online

First, there is some funny business with the chairs. I'm with Rob Brydon in the offices of the PR company handling his latest TV series, Director's Commentary. We're left alone in a sort of boardroom, and Brydon invites me to sit down next to him on a low-slung leather chair - lower than the chair he's sitting on. I tell him I feel like his therapist, and he immediately gets up and goes to sit at the far end of the boardroom. This leaves us looking like the old cartoon of an aristocratic couple breakfasting at distant ends of the dining table.

Now that we're sitting comfortably, if distantly (to paraphrase Ronnie Corbett, but more of him later), we can begin. Brydon is, of course, best known for his performance as the self-deluding cuckold Keith Barrett in BBC2's Marion and Geoff - addressing the camera from the driver's seat of his car in a series of cultish 10-minute shorts, which were then expanded into six half-hours.

I say "of course", but Brydon himself isn't so confident that Keith has the recognition value of, say, David Brent or Alan Partridge.

"He is still only known by a very small section of the population. It's not The Office," says Brydon. "Critics loved it, thank goodness, and the awards loved it, but the viewers... Tiny, tiny, tiny."

Not that he would particularly welcome Ricky Gervais's level of success. "My fame is rather nice and manageable and lovely," he says. "Ricky Gervais is always being hassled. As for The Office, it's already regarded as a classic - and the first one only went out two years ago."

I mumble that, in its own way, Marion and Geoff was something of a classic, and Brydon seems pleased. A good deal more handsome than Keith - once he's been stripped of Keith's manic gormlessness - Brydon is a multitude of competing voices, and even when being himself he seems to talk in quotation marks. A former voiceover artist ("voices are me") and talented mimic, Brydon's own Welsh lilt has to battle with a host of impressions, which he runs through as effortlessly as Eric Clapton playing a medley of blues standards.

"I only do impressions of people I like," he says; that eclectic circle includes Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Tom Jones, the Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce and, of course, Corbett. But more of him later.

Today, however, he's mostly being Peter de Lane - Brydon's latest creation - a bitchy, wonderfully pompous and (again) self-deluding veteran director of countless TV shows. In a send-up of those languorous "director's commentaries" that now come as extras on DVDs, the fictitious De Lane talks us through episodes he has supposedly directed of old TV shows such as Bonanza, The Duchess of Duke Street, Secret Army, The Bounder and, er, Mr and Mrs. "Mr and Mrs [I chose] because I loved the ludicrous nature of a director's commentary on a something throwaway like a quiz show," he chuckles. This subversive talking over of old footage is something Brydon has been at for a very long time.

"I remember when I was a kid watching Where Eagles Dare on the telly and I started to do Richard Burton's voice and put words into his mouth." Needless to say, this anecdote comes complete with Burton impersonation. Brydon himself has recorded a couple of "director's commentaries", for the DVD releases of Marion and Geoff and his later series, Human Remains.

"Dreadful things," he says, "In theory they're a great idea, but generally they're pretty boring. But what I realised is that you let things slip out you wouldn't normally say because you're so relaxed."

What we learn about De Lane is that he's been married several times, is a misogynist, is constantly ill ("always a good shortcut to a joke"), and has been in prison. "That's where he met Leslie Grantham. He was in prison in Belmarsh," says Brydon, before he slips into De Lane's voice. "That's of course where I formed the Belmarsh Merrymen. I put on some wonderful productions - the Belmarsh Merrymen were responsible for one of most the creative rooftop protests I've ever witnessed."

These delightful flights of fancy are arrived at by Brydon and his writing partner (and agent) Paul Duddridge. In the first episode, there is a wonderful riff about an actress in The Duchess of Duke Street. Brydon takes a seemingly innocuous clip of this woman stepping into a vintage car, and has her doing turns at the Beaulieu Motor Museum as Sir Donald Campbell. "On Boxing day she takes on the role of the tragic figure and drowns herself in a scale model of Bluebird to the sound of Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On'. It's a poignant, fitting tribute to a true British hero."

I tell Brydon such passages remind me of Peter Cook, and he is so pleased he's lost for words. Or rather, because he's never short of words, he's lost in parentheses.

"Mmmm. That's lovely, I mean - far be it from me - but - it's a ridiculous thing - the guy was a genius - but, well, he was good - he did lots that was crap - I have to say - which people conveniently forget."

He finally calms down enough to admit, "I am influenced by Peter Cook, absolutely. The great John Cleese quote about Cook is that to write a great three-minute sketch it would take him three minutes because it would just come out."

Since it was Granada that eventually commissioned Director's Commentary, Brydon had his pick of the extensive Granada library from which to choose his old shows. His production company, Jones the Film (Brydon's real surname is Jones), also owns the rights to 32 episodes of Bonanza, and he's not quite sure what he's going to do with the rest of them.

Then began the laborious process of getting the permission of the individual actors involved. Tantalisingly he won't identify the one actor who refused. "Oddly enough it's the person who, as far as I can tell, works the least."

I ask whyDirector's Commentary ended up on ITV1 rather than BBC2. Isn't it strange, I wonder, that Jane Root [the Controller of BBC2] didn't want something new from her protégé? "You'd be surprised how hard it is getting something away," he says, "unless your surname is Gervais and your first name is Ricky."

He is, however, doing The Keith Barrett Show for BBC2, in which Marion and Geoff's tragicomic chauffeur is given a TV show. "He's hosting a show about relationships - someone at BBC2 has spotted his video diaries. It's not a chat show - he's going to go out speed dating, going to meet body-language experts. The idea is to bring the character out. I love that character..."

Brydon is also penning a sitcom called Home with David Walliams from Little Britain. "We play brothers and we run an old people's home," says Brydon. "Ronnie Corbett is the only male resident.He's a Hugh Hefner-type figure wearing a silk dressing gown and shagging all the women there.

"I was talking Ronnie through the the draft of the first episode. I said these two women come out of your room and it's obvious you've just had your way with them. And he went: 'Hoo, hee, good lord, yes, hee - I hope I'm up to it. Hee hee hee.' It was very sweet." Ah, yes, Corbett. He is a hero of Brydon's - so much so that the latter seems to have taken on his characteristics. When I played back my tape recording after the interview, I noticed just how much Brydon sounds like Corbett delivering one of his stories on The Two Ronnies.

"I love his voice - the rhythms of his voice," says Brydon. "I was thrilled to have a recorded telephone message from Ronnie and I've never erased it." Naturally he follows this with the contents of the message, delivered in Corbett's distinctive timbre. Does Brydon ever fancy having his own impressionist show, becoming a sort of Welsh Alistair McGowan? He looks genuinely horrified.

"No I would not. When I was just doing voiceovers you'd go to auditions and you'd be sitting in reception talking to other actors and they'd say 'can you do so and so yet?'. And I used to resent the fact that I was expected to learn someone else. I want people to learn how to do me."

'Director's Commentary' starts tomorrow at 11pm on ITV1