The Saturday Interview

Rob Brydon: ‘James Corden lost his way for a bit. I felt for him’

The Welsh actor-comedian returns to Barry this year in the much-anticipated ‘Gavin & Stacey’ Christmas special. He talks to Alexandra Pollard about Bryn’s sexuality, his James Corden intervention, and why there’s no point complaining when things aren’t fair

Friday 20 December 2019 16:03
Rob Brydon: ‘It goes without saying I’ve very little time for our prime minister’
Rob Brydon: ‘It goes without saying I’ve very little time for our prime minister’

It’s a wonder Rob Brydon made it here on time. The actor-comedian was accosted three times on his way to meet me. There was the Gavin & Stacey fan desperate to know what happened to his character Bryn on that infamous fishing trip. Then came the admirer of his mockumentary series The Trip. And lastly, the person begging him to do his small man in a box voice. He obliged. “It’s such a dumb-arse thing,” says the 54-year-old in his sing-songy Welsh accent, setting down a walking stick (a gift from a fan) and bags of Christmas shopping, “but people really like it.”

Clearly, Brydon is an approachable sort: the kind of person you feel like you know. We’re in a hotel bar – suggested by Brydon because he has a dentist’s appointment nearby – and no sooner has he set down his bags than he’s launched into his trademark patter, unleashing a cavalcade of voices and impressions. One minute he’s Donald Trump, the next he’s Lorraine Kelly. There is a goofy, avuncular charm to him. It’s what makes him such a delightful presence as the host of Would I Lie to You? – that rare kind of panel show that’s not a testosterone-driven scramble for who can shout the loudest – and it’s what helped him break into the world of TV comedy two decades ago. While he was still a presenter on Welsh radio, he made a “little teaser tape” that found its way into the hands of Steve Coogan (with whom he’d later star in The Trip, the Greece edition of which is out in spring).

Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon in the ‘Gavin & Stacey’ Christmas special

Thanks to that tape, Brydon found himself starring in two Coogan-produced BBC comedies: the dark, twisted Human Remains with Julia Davis – which he and Davis co-wrote – and the divorce mockumentary Marion and Geoff, in which he was the one and only cast member. But it was with Gavin & Stacey, a sitcom about a young couple and their chaotic families – the Christmas special of which is airing on Christmas Day – that he hit the big time in 2007. Brydon, who grew up in Glamorgan and went to school with the show’s co-creator Ruth Jones, played the endearing, somewhat over-friendly Uncle Bryn. His character was an instant favourite with viewers.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. “I slogged around for years,” he says, pointing a pair of sugar pincers at me as he nibbles on a biscuit, “getting ‘baaaaa’ed off stage – people making sheep noises – getting crappy parts in crappy shows, unable to be seen by casting directors when all my contemporaries were.” Losing opportunities just for being Welsh seems unfair. “What’s fair?” he asks, adopting a comically lofty tone. “What is this fairness of which you speak? You think things are fair?” No, but they should be. “I’d like hover boots, but they’re not going to happen. You’ve got to try and treat people with fairness, but you cannot complain that other people are not. Keep going. Keep going. ’Twas ever thus.”

I was told I’d have to work hard to tease out any firm views from Brydon. One interviewer described him as a man who does “his level best not to give an opinion about anything”. But he’s on a roll. “You see it sometimes with young comedians: ‘It’s hard for me because of…’ Alright, get that off your chest, excellent. Now either go home or crack on. It’s a waste of time. Get on with it. It won’t do you any good.

“I doubt Eddie Murphy ever said, ‘Well, it’s hard because I’m black,’” he continues. “You just get on with it. It’s quite a simple equation in entertainment. You’ve just got to somehow become desirable to people.” He leans back in his chair, holds up his hands in mock apology, and flashes an exaggerated grin. “That’s my opinion. You’ve got to make them want to watch you. You’ve got to show them. I think for a long time, I thought you could tell them. I was saying, ‘I can do things, I can do things!’ But you have to show them.”

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in ‘The Trip to Spain’

Brydon has certainly showed them – and never more so than in Gavin & Stacey. Bryn is naive and neurotic, a kind soul with bouts of diva-ish rage, and Brydon balances all these traits perfectly. He had no idea that James Corden and Ruth Jones – who wrote and created the show as well as playing Gavin and Stacey’s respective best friends – were planning on bringing it back. “Nobody did. Not a clue.” The original run ended on New Year’s Day 2010; people have been asking him about a reunion ever since. “I would say no when they asked,” says Brydon. “Ruth’s gone off and done six series of Stella, and James, of course, has done everything.”

Did Brydon consider saying no when Corden finally rang with the news? “Oh god no! No, no. I wouldn’t be the fly in the ointment. It would be very obtuse, perverse behaviour for anyone to say, ‘No, I don’t want to be part of this show that turned into a phenomenon.’”

A phenomenon it was. When Gavin & Stacey began life on BBC3, it was watched by just half a million people. By the time it finished, 10 million were tuning in, enthralled by its gentle, unpretentious mix of realism and escapism – lovably low-stakes drama (Pam pretends to be a vegetarian) fused with moments of real poignancy (Gavin and Stacey struggle to have a baby). Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ll know its catchphrases – “What’s occurring?”, “That’s well lush”, “Gavlar!”.

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It’s always a risk bringing back something so beloved. But I suspect fans will be thrilled with the Christmas special. It is smart, silly and warm. “I don’t want to seem conceited,” says Brydon, “but my opinion is that it’s wonderful.” I can't say too much about it, but Gavin and Stacey keep having intimate moments interrupted, Smithy is conflicted, Neil the baby is in double figures, and Bryn – well, he’s the same as ever, tearing his hair out cooking a chaotic Christmas dinner for everyone. (Those wanting a double dose of Brydon on Christmas Day can also watch The Snail and the Whale on BBC1, to which he lends his voice alongside Sally Hawkins and Diana Rigg.)

Sneak preview of Gavin and Stacey Christmas special

Brydon is clearly proud of Gavin & Stacey, but he squirms in his seat when I try and overcomplicate it. Given that Bryn isn’t anyone’s father, son or partner, does he take on big practical tasks to make himself indispensable? “I don’t know. I’ve not really thought about it. I think he likes to help. I think he’s doing what his brother Trevor, God rest his soul, would have done.” Is Bryn lonely? “We’re being very deep here! I just say what they write!”

OK, I just have one more question about Bryn. “This will be out of my pay grade, but go on.” Is he gay? It’s strongly insinuated on the show, but never discussed. “I’m reticent to say anything.” Here’s that tight-lipped Brydon I was told about. “The minute I do, someone will say, ‘I read an interview with Rob Brydon – he’s this or he’s that.’ I think it should be up to the viewer. Because nobody says it on the show, so I think for me to say it, it’s honestly not my place. I have my opinion... although even then, I just play it as it’s written on the page. Now, if Ruth or James wanted a say...”

Corden is probably too busy to have a say. He’s been the host of The Late Late Show in the US since he took over from Craig Ferguson in 2015, and has also appeared in massive Hollywood movies such as Ocean’s 8 and Cats. But it nearly went a very different way for him. After he won a Bafta for Gavin & Stacey in 2008, Corden became – as he told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2012 – “spoilt and brattish”. He credited Brydon with snapping him out of it. “Rob took me to lunch and said, ‘What are you doing going out all the time being photographed with all these people? This isn’t the you I know. But it is the you I am having to defend to people.’”

“I do remember that,” nods Brydon. “I’d known him for a while – we met on a big comedy-drama called Cruise of the Gods in about 2002. I was very impressed by him, although he was very young, very green – very provincial is how I would describe him, not unlike myself at that age. He is such a talent, James, good God he really is. So he was on a rollercoaster. This boy from High Wycombe, and he’s suddenly enjoying the fruits of his success, and he just lost his way for a bit. He was burning the candle at both ends, and becoming ratty and irritable. He was in a washing machine being battered around. I felt for him. And the press over here were hoping and praying he’d fall flat on his face, because that would be a fantastic story.”

Brydon became increasingly distressed by the impression Corden was giving of himself. “You would hear people saying, ‘He’s this, he’s that,’” he says with a sigh. “So I took him out for lunch, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘When am I going to bring this up?’ And 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.’ And he took it in the spirit that it was intended. I’m so proud of James. We just spent half-term in California and went to see his show, and I was so proud of him.”

Perhaps Corden will return the favour when Brydon’s tour comes to his old hometown next year. Aptly named Songs and Stories, it’ll see him regale audiences with tales from his life, interspersed with songs performed with an eight-piece band. “I’m painfully aware of the danger of ‘bloke off the telly sings’,” says Brydon. “It’s often met with derision and suspicion.”

It took a holiday with David Walliams – “Not just the two of us, there were family there and everything” – to persuade him to do it. “We had a talk one day on what advice we would give each other with our careers, and his to me was take more chances.” So he took the plunge on this musical stand-up extravaganza. “Hopefully you’ll laugh and you’ll sing.”

Don’t expect many topical jokes, though. “I never really express political opinions,” says Brydon. Then again, “it goes without saying I’ve very little time for our prime minister… I would imagine very few people with any sense have.” The day we meet, it’s the general election. “If I could use the words of Bryn,” says Brydon, “I would say, ‘Most of our options this election are a shower of s***.’ It has been the most dispiriting exhibition of the less appealing side of human nature. We have seen what’s worked for the American president and bought it wholesale. The coarsening of public life, it’s very upsetting.”

I notice the time. Doesn’t Brydon have a dentist’s appointment to get to? I should let him go. “Thank you very much!” he cries in faux indignation. “You’ve been looking at my teeth. ‘I think you really ought to get to your hygienist, quick as you can.’”

Well, it’s just that I know how much he’s likely to get stopped on his way there. Does it ever bother him? “When people come up to you, it’s a big thing for them,” he says. “They plucked up the courage to come up and say hello. I always remember, before I was known, I bumped into Rik Mayall in the street. I went up to him and said, ‘Sorry can I just say, I think you’re fantastic. Thanks for all the pleasure you’ve given me.’ And he shook my hand and he went, ‘Thanks matey.’” He makes a Mayall-esque oinking noise.

“I dined out on that for years! It meant so much to me. So that made me realise that when someone comes up to you, genuinely pleased to meet you, it’s very important to make it a moment they can enjoy. I think people remember all the times you made them laugh.” He thinks for a second. “Or maybe I just have a funny face.”

The Gavin & Stacey Christmas special airs on BBC1 at 8.30pm, and The Snail and the Whale airs on BBC1 at 2.30pm. Rob Brydon’s Songs and Stories tour begins in Colchester on 26 February

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