Portrait: Rob Brydon

Marion and Geoff, a series of 10-minute TV monologues by a jilted minicab driver, made a surprise star of Rob Brydon. As it makes its return, he talks to Brian Logan

'People have incredibly low expectations of a 10-minute show", says Rob Brydon, attempting to explain the success of Marion and Geoff, series one. But people have higher expectations of a half-hour show - especially one that recorded the unlikely double whammy of best drama at the South Bank Show awards and best comedy newcomer for Brydon at the British Comedy awards. The first series - 10 10-minute bulletins from the front line of a cabbie's disintegrating family life - launched without fanfare two years ago, and stealthily seduced millions. Series two, in a new half-hour format, starts tonight.

"There was some trepidation," admits 37-year-old Brydon, whom Marion and Geoff plucked from obscurity. "But we're not in the business of, 'We've won an award, let's get another one out quick.' It's been a fair old gap."

The genius of Marion and Geoff was that its drama of loss and false optimism was filtered through the bathetic monologues of Brydon's Keith Barrett, Marion's estranged husband. Brydon, with co-creator Hugo Blick, has tried to retain that simplicity while developing the story. "When we asked ourselves," he says, "what could have happened to Keith in the last two years, the idea of a major event having changed the course of his life was very appealing." The event sees him forcibly separated from his two children and working as a chauffeur to rich Americans. ("I think it commands respect," he tells us in episode one, "wearing a hat in a car".)

The major event in Brydon's life has been the success of Marion and Geoff. After 15 years as a jobbing actor, DJ and TV presenter, suddenly he is hot property. Is he worried that this new-found celebrity might compromise Marion and Geoff's painful portrayal of loserdom and unfulfilled dreams? In a word, no - not least because Brydon still bears like a cross his experience of "all those years doing this, doing that". On one hand, he insists that that period "didn't feel like a struggle at the time". On the other, he tells stories that make Barrett's life seem cheerful by comparison.

"I would do weird stuff," he says. "I did live corporate events. I did one up in Glasgow for a company that makes thrush cream. I had to play a pharmacist, a GP and a salesman to illustrate the difficulties of selling thrush cream in the modern world. When you're doing that stuff, where you want to be seems continents away from where you are."

It wasn't all venereal diseases. Brydon, man of a thousand accents besides his native Welsh, made a lucrative living as the voice of Bounty bars and Sudafed. He presented shopping shows on cable TV. He appeared in a Russ Abbot sitcom and was a traffic warden in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But for Brydon, this was an inadequate life. "A lot of actors are very happy with 'a cough and a spit', which is a phrase I loathe." He slips into one of his voices. "'I was in EastEnders the other day, a cough and a spit, but it was nice.' But that's not enough for me. I want to stand at the front, otherwise it's a waste of time."

He resented being given "very unemotional, gimmicky parts just because I could do Many Different Voices. That's one of the reasons I ended up doing a show as emotional as Marion and Geoff."

It is on this basis that he rebuts criticism of his show, alongside The Office and I'm Alan Partridge, for being "cruel". "When people talk about cruel comedy," he says, "I would say that there's a heart and a compassion to them. Yes, there is cruelty in our humour, but I would say that reality shows and quiz shows are far more cynical." Brydon is all compassion for Barrett, because he knows how it feels to be him. "Filming the new series," he says, "I found - and I'm not sure why - that this time I was glad to shake him off at the end. Somebody said to me that Keith operates on a low but constant level of fear. It's true. And that's not a functional mindset to live with on a daily basis."

But he is still not sure where Rob ends and Keith begins. Performing a stage version of the show last autumn ("I was very apprehensive," he says. "I'd never done more than 20 minutes on stage before"), he found "that bits of me were creeping out; the more cynical, sarcastic side of me, which Keith doesn't have, was coming out."

But Brydon's keeping a lid on the cynicism. "I think everything's formative," he says. His years out of the limelight "have all had an effect. But the positive side is that I now appreciate where I've got, I see that it's transient, and hopefully it won't go to my head." Having said that, he adds: "All the time I've been working, ever since I went to drama college, people have told me I'm very, very good."

· Marion and Geoff starts tonight at 10pm on BBC2. The live show goes on the road in March. Information: 09065 581058.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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