In focus

Is it time to give James Corden a second chance?

James Corden is back on British soil after almost a decade on his American talk show. Will a new play and a ‘Gavin & Stacey’ special be enough to change the tide of public opinion, asks Katie Rosseinsky

Sunday 09 June 2024 06:00
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Corden is about to return to the London stage after almost a decade in America
Corden is about to return to the London stage after almost a decade in America (Getty Images for Tony Awards Pro)

In April 2022, a teary-eyed James Corden announced his plans to quit his high-profile gig as the host of The Late Late Show. After spending the best part of a decade in California, schmoozing on the chat-show sofa with Hollywood stars and persuading everyone from Adele to Michelle Obama to sing along to his car radio, the actor-writer-presenter said he was ready to return to London to bring up his young children. The response on this side of the Atlantic, though, couldn’t exactly be described as an open-armed welcome. The general sentiment? America, you can keep him.

That’s because slagging off Corden has become something of a national pastime. We’re so good at it, so persuasive in our derision, that even the Americans have started to copy our snark, rolling their eyes whenever the 45-year-old, say, makes yet another splashy cameo in a movie musical adaptation (a 2021 Change.org petition arguing that Corden should “in no way shape or form” be “in or near” the forthcoming Wicked film managed to amass more than 100,000 signatures). Hating on Corden is now an easy punchline, a default setting. Now that he’s reinstalled in the UK, he will have some work to do to win over a cynical home crowd.

Perhaps that’s why he’s gone straight back to two things that even his most outspoken critic couldn’t deny that he is very, very good at doing. This month, he’ll return to the London theatre scene to star in political drama The Constituent at the Old Vic, playing a troubled ex-serviceman opposite Motherland’s Anna Maxwell Martin. It’s Corden’s first UK stage performance since his acclaimed role in One Man, Two Guvnors, and more serious fare than we’ve come to expect from him.

Later this year, he will bring back Gavin & Stacey, the beloved BBC sitcom he co-created with longtime friend Ruth Jones, for one last Christmas special. The show, which sees Corden play emotional Essex lad Smithy, is a collective weak spot for a nation of naysayers: when the most recent festive episode aired in 2019, it broke BBC viewing records to become the most-watched scripted show of the decade. It’s the perfect trojan horse for a Corden comeback. So might it be time that the British public gave him a second chance?

Corden wasn’t always such a polarising figure. He got his start with small roles in films directed by the likes of Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows and appeared in the ITV drama Fat Friends, where he met Jones. A part in the National Theatre’s celebrated 2004 production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys helped put him on the map (he later starred in a film adaptation alongside Richard Griffiths and Dominic Cooper), but it was Gavin & Stacey that helped make him a household name in the UK.

He and Jones conceived of the show after Corden had attended a wedding near Barry Island, Cardiff. Eventually, they came up with the story of a long-distance couple who fall in love over the phone from their respective offices in Billericay and Barry; when they get engaged after their first IRL meeting, they must bring together their families to plan the wedding. Despite the title though, it was Corden’s Smithy and Jones’s character, Stacey’s best friend Nessa – and their “will they, won’t they” subplot – that really won over fans of the warm-hearted but sharply observed sitcom.

‘Gavin & Stacey’ captured the nation’s hearts in the late Noughties
‘Gavin & Stacey’ captured the nation’s hearts in the late Noughties (BBC)

But while Corden was riding high on a wave of acclaim following the first season of Gavin & Stacey, his public image soured. At Bafta’s TV Awards in 2008, he was crowned best comedy actor, and the series also received the audience award for programme of the year. His acceptance speech for that second award should have been a victory lap. Corden, however, wildly misjudged his comments, using his moment in the spotlight to speculate as to why his show hadn’t, in fact, received more praise. “How can what is apparently the best comedy performance of the year and the television programme of the year not even be nominated as a comedy?” he asked.

The awkward moment was widely condemned as a graceless faux pas, proof that this rising star believed his own hype. So when his next two projects – sketch show Horne & Corden and the Hammer Horror-parody movie Lesbian Vampire Killers – flopped, you could almost taste the schadenfreude from critics. The Independent hailed the film as “pretty woeful, and unimaginably boring”, and that was one of the kinder reviews. Corden’s lairy behaviour continued to make headlines: a crass joke about “shagging” Keira Knightley at the Empire Awards; an onstage row with Sir Patrick Stewart at a Glamour magazine bash. At one point, his Gavin & Stacey co-star Rob Brydon took him out for lunch to chat about his reputation. “I just said, ‘I don’t like hearing people saying this, because that’s not the person I know. So you need to be careful,’” Brydon later told The Independent.

Corden made a series of mea culpas, admitting that he hadn’t taken well to the first flushes of fame (“I was ungracious, ungrateful and brattish,” he said). He also managed to claw back some goodwill with a few more seasons of Gavin & Stacey and a few charity skits in character as Smithy. After the sitcom came to an end, his next few gigs were a mixed bag: presenting the Brit Awards and recording a naff World Cup song with Dizzee Rascal, the perfect musical accompaniment for England’s dismal performance in South Africa. But then he won pretty much universal praise for his turn in the stage comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, which earned him an Olivier nomination and won him a Tony. When the show transferred to Broadway, he caught the attention of executives at the TV network CBS. Although he was practically unknown in the US, they eventually decided to hire him to succeed Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson.

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Carpool Karaoke was a viral segment of ‘The Late Late Show’
Carpool Karaoke was a viral segment of ‘The Late Late Show’ (The Late Late Show)

A UK sitcom star moving into the very American world of late-night television? It was certainly a gamble. Talk show audiences have been on the slide for years, but Corden managed to succeed in other ways, largely thanks to the popularity of his Carpool Karaoke format. The inspiration was a Comic Relief sketch, in which a track-suited Smithy drove around with George Michael, singing along to some of the music legend’s greatest hits. It became a mainstay of The Late Late Show, with Corden joined by the likes of One Direction, Lady Gaga and, in one emotional episode, Paul McCartney.

For some, Carpool Karaoke was a bit cringe, a bit showy, an excuse for Corden to outperform his guests. But there was other, more personal fodder for his critics to revel in. Like the time Balthazar restaurateur Keith McNally banned him from his New York eatery, after Corden had allegedly been “very nasty” to serving staff (Corden later apologised, again calling his behaviour “ungracious”). Or a clip appearing to show him struggling to name his camera operators.

None of this has exactly helped his reputation. But other celebrities also have lofty attitudes, have behaved badly, have even starred in the monstrous 2019 motion picture Cats – and they don’t seem to inspire the amount of vitriol that Corden does. Sometimes it feels a bit like classic confirmation bias; like we’re constantly searching for more evidence to fit that narrative that he’s a nightmare. Recent reports of Corden getting stranded at an airport after a diverted flight were accompanied by a snap of him looking a bit angry, but it didn’t tell the whole story. It turned out that he was actually speaking up for his fellow passengers, with whom he’d previously been chatting and taking selfies.

Corden and Jones are working on a final ‘Gavin & Stacey’ Christmas special
Corden and Jones are working on a final ‘Gavin & Stacey’ Christmas special (PA)

And it’s not that hard to find colleagues past and present who are on Team Corden, either. His Constituent co-star Anna Maxwell Martin recently described him as “really easy” to work with, while longtime collaborator Jones has called him “an incredible friend” (albeit with some of the characteristics of “an annoying little brother”). Their Gavin & Stacey co-star Brydon, meanwhile, has suggested that the bad headlines have caused us to overlook his gifts. “I don’t think enough is made, frankly, about his success,” he said last year, adding: “I would like to see more of that rather than ‘he sent an omelette back.’”

If he sorts out his public image, and if we give him another chance, Corden could be a national treasure. The talent is certainly there, and his serious new stage role will be a chance to flex his thespian muscles. And of course, one last Gavin & Stacey special is an easy way to get back into the country’s collective good graces. I’ll give him one piece of advice for free, though: the Euros might be coming up, James, but please avoid any temptation to get cracking on another football anthem.

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