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interview

‘What’s below beta male? That’s where I am’: Simon Bird on his Christian sect sitcom and The Inbetweeners’ mixed legacy

The actor and director talks to Louis Chilton about wigs, career struggles and Rishi Sunak

Monday 23 January 2023 06:34 GMT
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Simon Bird: ‘I’m not a very professional actor, it turns out’
Simon Bird: ‘I’m not a very professional actor, it turns out’ (Dave J Hogan/Getty)

This is why I don’t do interviews,” says Simon Bird. “I regret everything I say.” I’ve just asked the 38-year-old star of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner about Rishi Sunak. In his 2021 mid-pandemic stand-up special Debrief, Bird suggested that Sunak, then chancellor of the Exchequer, was “personally culpable for gross negligence manslaughter”, branding his Eat Out to Help Out scheme an “act of terrorism”. “There was definitely an element of comic hyperbole there,” he tells me, somewhat pragmatically. “I don’t feel like it’s my place really to get into politics. Although, I mean, the reason you’re bringing it up is because I literally did get into politics... I’ve totally contradicted myself. But how do I feel about him being prime minister? Well, I don’t think I’ll be voting for him. And I’ll probably leave it at that.”

As I chat to Bird on a video call from his home in east London, much of our conversation follows this kind of wry, self-questioning rhythm. With a short, unfussy beard and glasses, he has a vague “between projects” vibe – as if one of the highly strung characters he’s played on screen has loosened up a bit. Just a bit. It’s been more than eight years since Bird last played pompous teenager Will McKenzie, in the second Inbetweeners movie, but it’s still a role he’s found hard to outrun.

No matter how many other projects he pursues – directing a feature film (2019’s Days of the Bagnold Summer), hosting a comedy panel show (the ill-fated The King is Dead) and acting in the West End – it is always Will McKenzie, and the accompanying “briefcase wanker” sobriquet, that seems to precede him. The nickname dates back to the very first episode of the show, which ran for three series in the late Noughties, but has since become general slang for someone who is posh, conceited and/or socially awkward.

Bird’s latest project, the Channel 4 sitcom Everyone Else Burns, might not change this fact, but it’s as good an opportunity as any. Written by Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor, the series follows a Mancunian family who belong to an extreme Christian sect. Bird plays David, the family patriarch, a petty and controlling buffoon with a truly ridiculous bowl-cut hairstyle. “My first reaction [upon seeing the wig] was laughter, annoyingly, which was pretty much everyone’s reaction. Which meant that we had to go ahead with it,” he laments. “I have the hope, if the show is successful, that the character’s look will sort of become iconic. So I had to concede that the hairstyle might help on that front.”

Everyone Else Burns is a hugely enjoyable sitcom, strewn with bitingly funny lines of dialogue and some surprisingly nuanced performances from Bird and his co-stars, particularly Kate O’Flynn, who plays David’s wife Fiona, and Amy James-Kelly, who plays his sheltered daughter Rachel. “It’s not a show about religion,” Bird explains. “Religion in the show, I think, is a metaphor for lots of other things, whether that’s sort of quote-unquote ‘family values’ or small-c conservatism.”

I ask what kind of preparation went into the role (outside of the unsightly wig). “Oh, you know, so much prep and research,” he says. “I went on lots of different pilgrimages. I learned the Bible.” He grins. “I didn’t really. I just read my lines. I’m not a very professional actor, it turns out.”

Channel 4, which commissioned the six-episode series, was also responsible for Friday Night DinnerThe Inbetweeners, and Bird’s stand-up special. Bird speaks highly of the broadcaster’s output – he enthuses about Derry Girls several times – and celebrates the fact that plans for its privatisation seem to have been abandoned. “Obviously I’m really glad, because they’re the only channel that give me any work,” he laughs. “That’s not the main reason it should be allowed to keep functioning. Although...”

Simon Bird and Kadiff Kirwan in ‘Everyone Else Burns’ (Channel 4)

Bird stumbled into acting almost by accident, having cut his teeth with sketch comedy at Cambridge University. “I hate myself,” he grumbles at one point, after referring to his character’s “journey” in Everyone Else Burns. “I’m not a trained actor,” he says. “I’m not a very good spokesman for the industry. But I do think comedy is a slightly different skill set. The most important thing for comedy is feeling comfortable enough on camera that you can follow your own impulses. So in many ways, I try to get out of character [on screen], just be as much myself as possible.”

Anyone familiar with Bird’s career will probably know this already, of course. In most of his screen performances there is a distinct “type” he tends to play: a blowhard; a figure of mockery; a balloon to be punctured. “As you’ll find out in this conversation, I couldn’t be more of a beta male,” he says. “What’s below beta? That’s sort of where I am. So I understand why I’m not offered the alpha male roles.”

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Next to The Inbetweeners’ Will, Bird’s other best-known role came in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner, which ran from 2011 to 2020. In it, Bird played Adam, the elder son in a dysfunctional Jewish family. Bird isn’t Jewish, or even religious “in the slightest”, he says. In the years since the series debuted, the casting of non-Jewish actors in prominent Jewish roles has become a point of some contention in the film and TV industries: Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Rachel Sennott in the acclaimed indie film Shiva Baby, and Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the biographical On the Basis of Sex are just a few of the casting decisions to have raised eyebrows recently.  

I’m not turning down a lot of active work – they’re not banging on the door!

Simon Bird

“I think it’s a really valuable and important debate to be having,” Bird says, “And it’s something I didn’t really consider when I was offered the part. But if I had my time again, or if this was happening now, it’s something that I would have to think long and hard about, and take advice on.”

One “mitigating factor” for Bird was the enthusiastic blessing of Robert Popper, the show’s writer and producer. “He approached me personally, to cast me to play himself,” Bird explains. “You know, the character Adam is literally Robert. He felt that I was the person best placed to represent him on screen, so that, for me, carries a lot of weight. If he was happy, then I’m happy as well. But I totally get why the conversation is happening.”

Over the course of our interview, Bird makes a number of flippant cracks about his “career struggles” (“I’m not turning down a lot of active work – they’re not banging on the door!”). Ask him about The Inbetweeners, and he’s reluctant to give an opinion: “I don’t watch it. I never want to see it again. I watched it at the screening through my fingers, cringed at my performance, and then tried to forget about it.”

The four amigos: Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas, James Buckley and Simon Bird in ‘The Inbetweeners 2’ (Channel 4)

Pressed on the subject, however, he does see positives in the show’s legacy. “I think something like Derry Girls is a direct continuation of what really worked about The Inbetweeners, which is that it’s right, and proper, and necessary to show people being themselves on screen. It couldn’t be a more universal experience, the experience of being a school kid. Everyone has a Jay in their friendship group. Everyone has a Neil. So that feels important.”

He goes on: “For me, to be honest, I’d just come out of university and done lots of student comedy that was quite pretentious and avant-garde. And I sort of snobbishly looked down on comedies that tried to be broad and relatable. And I think The Inbetweeners taught me that actually, it’s valuable to make something that is universal. And really hard to get it right.”

Bird shakes his head. “That’s a terrible answer,” he mutters. I’m not so sure.

‘Everyone Else Burns’ premieres on Channel 4 at 10pm on Monday 23 January

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