Rob Brydon: The last laugh

Not long ago, Rob Brydon inhabited a world of rejection and voiceovers for Toilet Duck. Now, he's rapidly emerging as one of Britain's brightest comic talents. Interview by Nick Duerden
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The Independent Online

It's a typical spring morning in central London, pouring down with rain. Rob Brydon has taken the tube into town from his Richmond home, and reaches the offices of his PR company on time and under the cover of a giant golfing umbrella. He offers an introductory smile that is tentative, though his handshake is firm. There is something very neat and orderly about him as he shakes his brolly and places it gingerly against the wall. He removes his suit jacket which he hangs tidily on the back of the chair. He is wearing a pressed sky-blue shirt tucked into a pair of jeans that look more Paul Smith than Diesel, and his brown suede shoes are somehow unspoilt by the downpour. He requests a diet cola, changes his mind to still water, then fixes his blue eyes upon mine. The smile becomes more confident.

It's a typical spring morning in central London, pouring down with rain. Rob Brydon has taken the tube into town from his Richmond home, and reaches the offices of his PR company on time and under the cover of a giant golfing umbrella. He offers an introductory smile that is tentative, though his handshake is firm. There is something very neat and orderly about him as he shakes his brolly and places it gingerly against the wall. He removes his suit jacket which he hangs tidily on the back of the chair. He is wearing a pressed sky-blue shirt tucked into a pair of jeans that look more Paul Smith than Diesel, and his brown suede shoes are somehow unspoilt by the downpour. He requests a diet cola, changes his mind to still water, then fixes his blue eyes upon mine. The smile becomes more confident.

There are many things to discuss: television and film projects, a national tour that will keep him busy every night for the next two months, and a career that is, at last, truly buoyant. But first we make small talk (the weather, Australia, where he has recently been working, the accumulation of Air Miles) and then, in a voice that has more than a touch of Richard Burton about it, he says this:

"Strange things, interviews, aren't they? They've always - not confused me, as such, but I do find something odd about them. Don't you? You're going to ask me all these questions, and I'm going to have to answer as many as I feel prepared to, while side-stepping those I'd rather not. I'm worried about the angle this feature will take. How will you portray me? Which pull quotes will your editor extract? Which photograph? The one of me smiling and joking, or looking mean and moody?" His face grows serious. It's a long face, heavy with cheekbones and chin, so that's an awful lot of serious. "It's a fascinating process, very peculiar."

His water arrives and he stops pondering, briefly, to drink. "When I first started doing all this," he adds, meaning promotion, "I wasn't in a particularly happy place in my private life. And the media interest, although admittedly minimal, made me very uncomfortable." Back in 2000, the year of his much sought-after big break, BBC2 was screening Marion & Geoff, Brydon's exquisitely observed series about a cab driver called Keith whose wife had left him and whose life, as a consequence, was beginning to unravel. In a cruel twist of timing, Brydon's own wife, Martine, had also just served divorce papers. "But, and I've said this many times before, Marion was not, was absolutely not, based on Martine. Of course, nobody believed me, but she really wasn't. Anyway, that kind of intrusion made me very guarded indeed. Now, I like to think I'm more relaxed, but only slightly."

It is, of course, the ultimate cliché to suggest that any funny man or woman is beset with all manner of anxieties, but Brydon does have his fair share. Like the hen-pecked Keith, Brydon can be both garrulous and beleaguered, the frown lines across his forehead suggestive of a man who thinks things through perhaps a little too much. Questions don't automatically produce answers as much as they do a mounting confusion. "Am I a comedy performer, or a writer?" he wonders. "Or an actor? And am I really, as you so kindly suggest, successful? An Independent reader might have a vague idea of who I am, but your average Sun reader wouldn't have a clue."

Despite this curious compulsion to sell himself short, Brydon has built up an admirable body of work this past half decade. In addition to Marion & Geoff, there has been the deliciously twisted Human Remains with Nighty Night's Julia Davis, and his recent portrayal of critic Kenneth Tynan in BBC4's In Praise Of Hardcore offered ample proof that he is as adept in drama as comedy.

He was in Australia to film a new sitcom for BBC2 called Supernova in which he plays a hapless astrologer whose private life, like Keith Barrett's, is a disaster, and found his reception Down Under to be very telling. "Several of my previous programmes have screened over there," he says, "but apart from one chap - who was so thrilled to be in my presence he wanted to stroke me - nobody had ever heard of me. The make-up lady asked whether I got much work back home in England, and when I told her I did OK, she seemed almost relieved for me."

On paper, this reads like a curmudgeonly grumble from someone who considers themselves worthy of adulation, but he doesn't mean it like that at all. He' s a nice man, Rob Brydon. You'd like him. If anything, he seems something of a weary defeatist, shrugging his shoulders at a world he can't always quite fathom. But whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not, he is very much in demand and, having excelled on the small screen, he is now gradually moving towards f cinema. In 2003, film director Michael Winterbottom gave him a small role in 24 Hour Party People, and has cast him again in his new film, A Cock And Bull Story, alongside Steve Coogan. There is a suggestion that he may soon try his luck over in America, and in addition to these myriad acting roles, he also happens to be script editor of Little Britain, the most celebrated TV sketch show of its generation. He must be thrilled with it all.

"Thrilled?" he repeats, the frown returning.

Yes, you know, happy. Excited.

"Excited ... Well, no, not really, to be honest. It's good to be busy, don't get me wrong, but ..." His face clouds over. "For some reason, your question has completely thrown me. I'm stumped, and I'm afraid I'm sounding rather dour." At this, though, he perks up. "At least I know the way you'll go with the story now," he says. "Rob Brydon, gloomy bugger."

BEFORE HE turned 35, Rob Brydon had every reason to be a gloomy bugger. Born almost 40 years ago in Port Talbot, to a car dealer (father) and a teacher (mother), he spent his adolescence with dreams of becoming an actor. He applied to Rada, unsuccessfully, and, though he did end up at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, this led only to a brief stint on local radio. While dabbling on the comedy circuit ("I was good at improv," he says), he continually auditioned for TV, and was continually turned down. "I wasn't good enough for Whose Line Is It Anyway?, apparently," he recalls.

He spent much of the 1990s in active, if ultimately unfulfilling, employment as a TV voiceover artist - selling everything from cars and cornflakes to Toilet Duck - and when he did manage to land a television gig, it was on the Shopping Channel. "Quality goods at discount prices," he says now, with heavy irony.

And then, towards the end of the decade, a small miracle: fortune finally smiled down upon him when future collaborator Julia Davis passed an early, videotaped incarnation of Marion & Geoff on to Steve Coogan. Coogan immediately felt it had potential.

"Now that was exciting," Brydon explains, suddenly animated. "Having somebody like Steve accept me as an equal was pretty thrilling, I must say. The train journey down to his house [Coogan lives in Brighton] was the most exciting of my life, full of anticipation." He grins at the memory of it. "I remember this quote from Sir Tom Jones in which he said that it was more exciting for him to go from Pontypridd to London than from London to Las Vegas, and that's very much something I can relate to. In many ways, that first meeting with Steve has been more exciting than anything that has happened since. Everything since, effectively, has been me trying sustain that level of momentum."

I ask him whether he is ever fearful it could all go away again. The frown returns. He decides to answer much like other performers do when confronted with something they'd rather not face: in a comedy voice. "Fear, you say? Hmm. Fear is a very strong and powerful word, especially in the hands of a writer from The Independent." His baritone is booming, rich with the resonance of an upper-class toff. "Now, I wonder what you are going to do with a word like fear, especially in relation to me." Nervous fingers drum his lip. "Should I even allow it on to the table between us? It could be dangerous, you know. Then again, maybe truth should reign! And so, yes!" He bangs the table with his fist. "Yes! I shall allow you fear, and shall admit to you that occasionally I do suffer from it. But I'd rather you wrote it in lower case, not capitals: fear rather than FEAR. That all right with you, old boy?"

Brydon doesn't want you to delve into his psyche. He never wanted to be properly famous, like, he says, Ricky Gervais, and while his own programme, The Keith Barrett Show, invited celebrity couples on to talk freely about their own private life, it's something he would never do. "Not because I'm particularly introverted," he says, "but because I think it's ungainly for the people around me. My ex-wife is out there, living and breathing, and she reads newspapers, she watches television. It would be wrong to talk about her, don't you think? And I could bore you about my children for hours [he has one boy and two girls], but I think I should choose not to."

He is similarly reluctant to talk about his new partner of three years, a researcher on The South Bank Show called Claire Holland, about whom the Daily Express has said this: "She's blonde". "Well, she is indeed blonde, I'll give you that," Brydon says, "but not necessarily with all the tabloid connotations attached." He pauses to drink some more water. "You know, I'm one of those people who wince and cringe an awful lot when reading celebrity interviews. They do prattle on, don't they? And they do love to complain about invasion of privacy, when I've never even heard of them! I don't want to get into all that."

From now until the middle of July, Rob Brydon will resuscitate Keith Barrett once more for his biggest tour to date. But the moment we start talking about it, he comes over all humble and apologetic again. Some of the show, he admits, has been performed before, at last year's Edinburgh Festival, so there will be repetition, and he shan't be playing central London because he doubts whether he will manage to sell out a venue in the capital. But he will admit to adoring stand-up, and wants it quietly known that he considers himself rather good at it.

"When I come off stage after a show, my confidence is soaring," he says. "I feel funny because I have been funny. People have laughed. And if you come to talk to me afterwards, I will still be funny because I'm in funny mode. All night long I will be very, very funny. It's a nice feeling, I like it."

And so how does he channel this supersonic post-show confidence? They say women rate a man's ability to make them laugh as the greatest aphrodisiac of all. Does he ever want to put this to the test? "No, oh no. No," he says. "I'm not going to tell you too much about my private life, but I will say that I value it very much. If I went out celebrating after every show, that would mean drinking in bars, and drinking in bars can often lead to kissing. Kissing would be wrong. No, I'll happily sign autographs and chat with whoever wants to chat to me at the stage door, but after that, Elvis has left the building." He smiles, almost apologetically. "He's gone straight back to his hotel room and to bed, I'm afraid." E

'The Keith Barrett Show - Live' nationwide tour starts 11 May. See www.robbrydon.com

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