Carole Cadwalladr interviews James Corden

One minute, the creator of Gavin & Stacey could do no wrong ... the next, one of our best comic talents was the butt of every critic's wrath. As his new film opens, he tells Carole Cadwalladr about success, fame and the fallout from a critical backlash

Who'd be a celebrity? There's the adulation, admittedly, and the money, and the thick, gold-edged invitations, and the attention and the members of the opposite sex throwing themselves at you, but I'd honestly prefer to gouge out my eyeballs with a rusty Biro than submit to the horrors of the sort of fame news cycle that James Corden has just been through.

One minute, he's the toast of the town, the new king of comedy, the genius who, with Ruth Jones, wrote and starred in Gavin & Stacey, one of the most loved new comedies of recent times; the next, he's "that fat git with a laugh like a neutered howler monkey" (Ally Ross, the Sun). His sketch show, Horne & Corden, was pooh-poohed ("About as funny as credit default swaps" - the Daily Telegraph), his film, Lesbian Vampire Killers universally slated ("The worst movie of the year," according to the Observer's Philip French). He's been a tabloid whipping boy ever since.

It was, wrote Mark Lawson in the Guardian, "one of the steepest and quickest falls from grace in showbiz history". When I meet him, he's on the set of his new film, Gulliver's Travels. It's his first Hollywood feature and has a grand and starry cast including Jack Black, Billy Connolly and Emily Blunt. He is all smiles and solicitous attention, and genuinely warm and welcoming, until I mention the word "backlash"; he switches from chatty to nervy in an instant.

"I don't know ... I really don't ... the thing is that it's pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, in the actual world when people have actual problems, where my mum's a social worker and so is my sister and they go to work and have to do things like take kids into care and separate them when they've told their parents they will be together - those are actual things and actual problems. Whereas how can I be sat here on the set of a $300m film, and about to make a third series of our really successful BBC1 show, and talk about how bad things are? It's disrespectful to people with real problems."

For all his bravado, it's obvious that it's been a bruising experience, a combination of bad timing and bad luck as much as a certain amount of youthful bad judgment.

In the space of a few weeks came the sketch show he wrote and performed with Mathew Horne which attracted a loyal following but was panned by certain reviewers ("It was aimed at a BBC3 audience, it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea"), the vampire stinker, and a charity performance at London's Royal Albert Hall which attracted vitriol from certain quarters.

It was like a critical multi-car pile-up. Poor James. You might as well give a spaniel a good kicking. He's an absurdly youthful 30 and he can't quite subdue his innate, good-natured bounce. It's been a learning curve, though.

Would you have done anything differently, thinking about it now?

"Yeah. But I'm not going to say what, because that has a knock-on effect on the other people who made those things. I'm not going to suddenly try and distance myself. But I've learnt that being consistently praised all the time is not a healthy place to be."

It's also given him an understandable wariness around journalists. He's rather sweetly eager to please and giving of his time in a way in which most interview subjects simply aren't. When he gets called back to the set, he invites me to come and meet him at his hotel after filming has finished for the day but still says: "Even sitting here with you now I'm nervous and when you leave I'll dread it until Sunday."

The only reason he's agreed to do the interview is because he wants to do his bit to support his new film, an independent British production called Telstar about Joe Meek, the maverick 1960s record producer. It's directed by Nick Moran of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame and is an energetic period piece, an almost Ortonesque farce, in which Con O'Neill plays the paranoid, sexually repressed Meek, Kevin Spacey his business partner, Major Banks, and Corden is Clem Cattini, a somewhat volatile session drummer.

He went to meet Cattini before filming started and played the drums with him ("I wouldn't say I learnt to play the drums; I'd say that I learned how to look like I could play the drums") and has nothing but praise for Moran and his film. "He's a very smart guy and to make the film as a first-time director for under a million is an achievement in itself. It certainly feels like it captured a mood and a time that all the people who were there absolutely recognise. They all say it's completely accurate. Clem was in tears afterwards."

It's a solid piece of work in a plucky Brit film and it deserves to find an audience, but it's only a supporting role ... and, well, it's not Gavin & Stacey. Which, as a fan of the show, is what I really want to talk to him about. Because, excitingly, tomorrow the third and final series goes into production.

Writing it, he says, has been the highlight of his year. "I love it. It's just so wonderful being in a room with Ruth and sitting there and just knowing that anything can happen to those characters. Anything at all." He'd love to write something else with her, he says, a film, perhaps, "but Ruth's so busy and I'm busy and we have to mourn Gavin & Stacey for a while. When we wrote that last bit, we both of us just looked at each other and sat there in silence".

It's a sad ending, is it? I ask, fishing.

"It's sad for us."

Oh, it's frustrating, he won't give anything away apart from saying that Pam Ferris, who's also in Telstar, is going to play Smithy's mother. His reticence is annoying because I love Gavin & Stacey. But then everybody loves Gavin & Stacey. Or, at least, more people than seems possible or even likely. The night after meeting Corden, I have to go to Norfolk, for work, and mingle with a hunting, shooting and fishing crowd with whom I struggle for an hour to find something I can talk to them about. And then Johnny, an old Harrovian, former three-day-eventer, says: "I love Gavin & Stacey." Sally, his wife, pipes up: "Oh yes, isn't it fantastic." And suddenly we have something in common.

It's not just that it's funny and brilliantly observed, it's that there's a humanity at the heart of it that informs everything else: Gavin and Stacey love each other, but so do Gavin and Smithy, and Stacey and Nessa, and Smithy and Pam, and Stacey and Uncle Bryn and ... oh, it's impossible to enumerate the permutations of romantic love, platonic love, familial love, all highly unconventional concepts of the modern comedic genre.

"It was never a calculated thing. None of it was. It was just what organically felt like the best way to tell a story. It was never, 'Let's make a show that's an antidote to the black comedy that's around.' It was never that. I think Ruth and I have a strong belief in love really ... in the power of it ... how it really is personally the most amazing thing in the world that right now, two people somewhere are going, 'I don't want to be without you in my life.'"

There's an almost brazen soppiness to Corden. Two of his favourite-ever films are When Harry Met Sally and Jerry Maguire. "Jerry Maguire!" I say. Even 13-year-olds into ponies and pink felt-tips know better to own up to liking Jerry Maguire

"I love Jerry Maguire," he says. "I absolutely love it." But then he's never been afraid of defending his right to be determinedly mainstream - his favourite band is Take That.

One of his most appealing attributes is that his soppiness also extends to his friends, his mates from High Wycombe who he's known since he was four, Matthew Horne, his Gavin & Stacey co-star and sketch show collaborator - and, absolutely most of all, Ruth Jones. They row, he says, but he clearly adores her, and when I ring her she tells me about how they met on Fat Friends when she was 34 "and James was about 10". He'd been to a wedding in Barry, had an idea about a bride who was Welsh and a groom who was English, and they just started elaborating on it. They were friends, but it was really Gavin & Stacey which brought them together. As, in an art-life-life-art parallel are Nessa and Smithy, the characters they play.

They're an unlikely combination in some ways, what with the age gap and Jones living in Cardiff and Corden in Buckinghamshire (10 minutes from his parents and 20 from his sister), but he calls her "my best friend in the world, without a question". Their relationship is so close that Jones says he's practically family.

"I was head girl at school and was very diligent, doing my O-levels and my A-levels and my degree, whereas James got two GCSEs and just played around. In a way, we play the same roles now. I'm the nagging older sister and he's the cheeky, creative younger brother, but it just seems to work for us. We make up for each other's lack."

The series not only propelled them into the spotlight, it gave Corden the kind of part that he says he'd otherwise never have played. "In lots of other TV shows, Smithy would be the character who comes into the house and delivers the telly and then leaves. And Uncle Bryn would be the guy on the bus who shares a conversation with the good-looking lead."

It's assumed that Corden is a version of Smithy, but he's not much of a drinker and he comes from a solidly middle-class background. Throughout his childhood, his parents had the unusual quality of being committed members of the Salvation Army, although they have now left.

He was the school joker, hopeless at exams, brilliant at messing about. The only thing he really applied himself to was making other people laugh. After being talent-spotted in a school play, he attended an out-of-hours stage school which sent him to audition after audition until, finally, at 17 he landed a small part in the West End production of Martin Guerre.

He has only recently become a household name, but he worked throughout his 20s for some of the best names around: Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows, Nicholas Hytner, Alan Bennett. His big break was The History Boys, a huge hit at the National Theatre, then a worldwide tour, then a film. This was what gave him the confidence, he says, to go ahead and write Gavin & Stacey.

They're all in there; there are elements of Bennett and, most crucially, Leigh. Not just Alison Steadman's part but the very feel of the show, what Corden calls "the whole thing of finding the extraordinary within the ordinary".

Read his career history, though, and his recent troubles make more sense. He's always got into scrapes. He was sacked from a leading role in an adaptation of Martin Amis's Dead Babies which "at the time was absolutely devastating as I was convinced it was going to be the next Trainspotting" (although it sank, "Thank God!"). It's not the first time he has run into problems with his "attitude".

This time around, it was his second Bafta speech, in which he seemed to question why Gavin & Stacey hadn't won a third award, that did it. It was pure confusion on his part, he says. He couldn't understand how it could win the audience award without having been nominated for a comedy award.

He'll defend almost everything he's done: the sketch show ("It got criticised but it was targeted at a very specific, young, audience and it got BBC3's best ratings this year"); his appearances falling out of clubs in the tabloids ("It was a very specific time. I'd just split up with my girlfriend. I'd never been single before, I'd never been famous before and it's a bad mix. A very bad mix"); his flirting on live television with Lily Allen ("On my life," he told her, "without irony or agenda, truly, I don't think you realise how lovely you are"); but the Bafta speech obviously troubles him.

"I really, really hope that it wasn't the reason that we weren't nominated as a show for any Baftas this year. I would be devastated if that was the reason."

It's certainly odd that Gavin & Stacey wasn't nominated. The second series was every bit as good as the first, if not better, the most obvious difference being that Corden went from being nearly unknown to tabloid man. He no longer goes out much, he says, and has a girlfriend now (Sheridan Smith who plays his sister in Gavin & Stacey). But the episode has taken its toll. He's been seeing a therapist and says that certain things have had to change.

"It took me a while to realise that this isn't all just some game; to realise that there are people in positions of power who take it a lot more seriously than I do, and boy are they going to let you know about that. So there's a responsibility to behave and act in a certain way."

It's been always been a problem, he says. "This arrogance thing ... I've had that my whole life. I flip between, 'Oh really? Oh, thank you. Wow. That's amazing' and, 'Yeah! Of course I am.' They're both varying degrees of a self-defence mechanism. It can be from minute to minute that I change. I was talking to my mates and my friend Dodge, who I hadn't seen for ages, said, 'You really haven't changed.' I said, 'In what way?' And he said, 'You know, being famous.' Then my friend who lived over the road from when I was four said, 'James has always thought he was famous.' I think he's probably right."

It's been hard being on the sidelines watching the press bashing away at him, says Ruth Jones. "Look, he's not a wallflower, but there's no way he deserves that sort of lambasting. It was out of all proportion. I don't want to speak for him and I think he dealt with it all very graciously, but I wouldn't have been able to handle it.

"He's got a very strong network of friends and family and he's able to see the bigger picture, so I think that's helped. But I was reading a George Lamb interview the other day in which he said that if he didn't stay true to himself he would just be very bland. You can't pander to other people's ideas of what you should be and not commit yourself in any way, you wouldn't want that."

You wouldn't. But then I don't think you could keep James Corden down for long. It's late when I leave him and he has an early call, but he's still got to write his speech for the Glamour Awards which he's presenting the following night.

"He sang, you know," Ruth Jones tells me on the phone the night after. "Right at the start. 'I am what I am!'"

And he is, he really is what he is.

The history boy: A life in brief

Born in High Wycombe, to a social worker mother and a father who was an RAF musician and is now a Christian bookseller. Left school at 17 with two GCSEs to pursue acting. Lives in Beaconsfield and and is dating actress Sheridan Smith.


1996 Stars in West End musical Martin Guerre

2000 Meets Gavin & Stacey co-writer Ruth Jones on the set of ITV comedy Fat Friends

2002 Film debut in Shane Meadows' Twenty Four Seven

2004-06 Comes to national prominence in The History Boys

2007 Gavin & Stacey begins on BBC Three.

2008 Wins Bafta for best comedy performance on Gavin & Stacey

2009 Hosts Brit Awards with Mathew Horne and Kylie Minogue. BBC Three sketch show Horne and Corden begins andthe film Lesbian Vampire Killers is released. Starts filming third series of Gavin & Stacey

Nicole Green

• Telstar is released on Friday 19 June


Carole Cadwalladr

The GuardianTramp

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