There are two versions of the comic Rob Brydon: Television Personality and Twickenham Dad. And although the two identities have lived hugger-mugger inside him for decades, occasionally overlapping, “like tectonic plates”, says the 55-year-old, they are rarely seen out in public at the same time. I’m lucky this afternoon that I get to meet both Brydons: the performer, who is polished and smiley if a touch remote, as well as the softer, more relatable father-of-five. It’s Twickenham Dad I meet first. When I come up on Brydon on a London street he is peering through the window of a home-furnishing showroom, taking pictures of a nice bit of garden furniture that’s caught his eye.
This furniture looks to be hewn out of stone and (we both note) has no obvious price tag. “So whatever you think it costs,” says Brydon, in his measured and pleasing Port Talbot accent, “add lots of zeroes on.” He is wearing a fitted, felty suit and has his charcoal hair neatly parted. The enduringly youthful face, lightly scarred from teenage battles with acne, is mostly covered by a pale pandemic mask. He removes the mask once we’re seated in a nextdoor restaurant. Angling his thick-framed bifocals, Brydon studies the menu, taking an age to choose and dramatising his indecision for the waiter’s amusement.
“Who knows!” he is muttering. “I might treat myself to a little pudding. That changes, as you get older, your love of puddings. Oh! There’s too much that looks lovely. Make a decision, man. OK. The seabream. The seabream, please. The seabream.”
He’s hungry, having woken early this morning to appear on breakfast TV, there to talk up a live tour (due to start next spring) and a series of YouTube interviews he has recorded with friends and colleagues from the entertainment industry. It occurs to me, listening to Brydon’s twinkly and enjoyable anecdotes about dawn wake-up calls, soundchecks, unintentionally patronising producers, that breakfast telly is about the only job in showbiz he hasn’t tried over a multi-decade career.
To date, Brydon has starred in influential British sitcoms that are mainstream (Gavin & Stacey), niche (Marion & Geoff) and deep niche (Human Remains). At the start he was a radio presenter, then a shopping-channel presenter, then a quiz-show presenter, then the disembodied voice on the Beeb who said chirpy and forgettable things between the end of the news and the start of Match of the Day. For decades, he has narrated ads, for soft drinks, for breakfast cereals.
In his new YouTube series he revisits a skill for interviewing that he first developed as host of the Wogan-like Rob Brydon Show, which ran between 2010 and 2013. He currently helms a comedy panel show, Would I Lie To You? and over the years he has toured (in and out of character) as a standup, a musician, and a musician who does standup between songs. Since 2010, Brydon has improvised his way through four series of The Trip, an intense two-hander, co-starring Steve Coogan and devised by director Michael Winterbottom, that is one of the most interesting, infuriating, sustainedly weird creative projects in recent TV history. Oh, and Brydon does impersonations, too.
“Gotta-find-the-monkey, gotta-find-the-monkey,” he is saying at the restaurant table, pretending to be Dustin Hoffman in the 1995 virus movie, Outbreak. “Hruff! Hruff! Hruff!” he says, impersonating Boris Johnson as part of a story about the time he met the Prime Minister in a corridor. “It was at a thing, a party. We were passing.” Instead of any sort of conventional greeting, Brydon recalls Johnson pointed a finger at his chest and said the word “funny” several times. “I think I nodded. I can’t remember what I said, but I didn’t stick around, because I didn’t want to… I didn’t want to, um… I suppose I didn’t want to be charmed by him, if I’m going to tell the truth.”
Brydon frowns. Typically he steers clear of political chat. A look at his 2021 tour schedule might explain why: this comic has broad, cross-demographic appeal and out on the road he’ll be visiting more Brexit- and Boris-voting constituencies than not. Anyway, something about the way the government botched the closure of theatres at the start of lockdown really irked him. Brydon was on tour at the time, warming up in Guildford when Johnson held that notorious press conference in late March, “the one where he recommended people didn’t go to the theatre, he didn’t say they couldn’t go. (At the time this was felt a cowardly move, potentially blocking insurance payouts.) It put venues in a dreadful position,” says Brydon.
He remembers having to tell the band of musicians he was travelling with that their weeks-long tour was off. He gets tearful talking about it now. “I could see it in their faces. They were thinking of the loss of income. It was sobering. Really sobering.”
In the manner of a fellow-traveller, Brydon will acknowledge that Johnson (“Let’s not call him Boris, please, because it softens him, like all the Wodehouseian nonsense that he does”) was a decent TV comic himself, back when he would occasionally host panel shows. “Johnson was good on TV. He should have stayed there. On TV? Fill your boots, good for you, have all the character flaws you want. But not in the slightly more important job you occupy now, please.”
As a boy growing up in Swansea and later Port Talbot, Brydon would sing along to David Bowie in the family car. “It’s a god-awful small affair…” One day his mother, a teacher, interrupted him: “It may well be. But we won’t have that kind of language here.” He had half an eye on London and at 18 he travelled there to audition for Rada. He performed a piece from The Homecoming, but it didn’t land and he crept away defeated. Years later, spotting Harold Pinter in a restaurant, he approached the notoriously touchy playwright and risked a joke. “I can’t help thinking that if you’d tried a little bit harder with the writing, things might have been different for me.” Pinter, to Brydon’s terrific relief, chuckled.
He was always good at making people laugh. Accepted into another drama college, in Cardiff, he remembers being picked out by his peers as “the funny one. I can’t overstate how much I thought I would do when I began.” In fact, Brydon left college early to work in radio. Through his 20s he “scrabbled around” on the fringes of the industry. He was married with three children when, in 1996, he auditioned for Spitting Image and got down to the last three, no further. For the most part, “I couldn’t get in the door of casting rooms. All I had to offer was little parts in sitcoms that amounted to nothing; little parts that a nice well-trained Labrador could have played.”
He recalls an evening at home in the mid-1990s, when he was watching BBC2 and he saw Coogan as Alan Partridge in an early episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You. “I got off the sofa and I knelt, to be closer to the TV. I knew how good this was.” A few years later it seemed miraculous when a tape he’d made of himself performing character sketches found its way into Coogan’s hands. Coogan wound up producing two comedy series featuring Brydon: first Marion & Geoff (co-created with Hugo Blick) and then Human Remains (co-created with Julia Davis). There was another kneel-on-the-floor moment, in 2000, when Marion & Geoff broadcast to genuine acclaim on BBC2.
“It changed everything. I was 35. My contemporaries had soared past me.” Now he was felt to be a rising star. And he was buds with Alan Partridge. “I was quite green at the time. I think I was quite provincial. I’m quite a late developer. Physically and, I don’t know, emotionally maybe? When I first met Steve it was very much as a fan. I remember, first hanging out with him, my frustration at his reluctance to engage in anything comedic. This man with these prodigious gifts! I would want to do bits with him. And he’d never do bits. He’s not one of those guys.”
Brydon is one of those guys. As an interviewer you come to recognise his comedy bits tend to intrude whenever he wants to speed through or skirt an awkward discussion point. We’re talking about what it was like to experience seismic upheaval during his 30s. (By 2006, Brydon was divorced and married to Clare Holland, with whom he has had two more children.) I say something careless about starting life all over again and Brydon adopts the persona of a Welsh schoolmaster, maybe one played by Anthony Hopkins, to chastise me.
“Now, what you’ve done there,” says Brydon-as-Hopkins, lowering his head and pressing his hands together, “is you’ve assumed life is like this… [his hands come apart and he makes a soft percussive noise, like a bomb exploding] When in fact life is like this… [he slides his hands apart more gently]. Life evolves. It’s a slow shifting. So I wouldn’t say I started life again at 35. My first marriage ended. But it wasn’t this… [exploding hands]. It was this… [sliding hands]. As sensitive, and as untraumatic, as we could make it.”
It was around then that Brydon put in a career-shaping performance as Uncle Bryn in two series of Gavin & Stacey. The culture-clash sitcom was created by Ruth Jones and James Corden, who wrote Brydon’s part with him in mind. Jones is from the same part of Wales as him and they had crossed paths as secondary-school kids, when they appeared together in amateur musicals. To this day, Brydon says, “If you put us together, we will sing.” This singing of theirs caused an uncomfortable ruckus last Christmas when the cast of Gavin & Stacey regathered for a seasonal episode watched by more than 17m people.
Brydon’s character and Jones’s were in a karaoke scene in which they had to sing the Pogues song, Fairytale of New York. The uncut version of the song is considered inappropriate, by many, for its inclusion of a homophobic insult. In the version Brydon and Jones recorded they did not edit out the insult. (PinkNews: “More Than a Quarter of the Population Spent Their Christmas Watching Rob Brydon Unnecessarily Sing a Homophobic Slur”.) Jones has since made a persuasive case that it was all a matter of creative honesty. “We had to remain true to the characters,” she told the Sun. “And they’re not necessarily going to be completely politically correct.”
I ask Brydon what he made of it. He says: “That’s the world we live in now. So you’ve got to be able to take it. It’s their opinion.” Ruth Jones was a guest on his new YouTube show and during their conversation Brydon described the filming of the Pogues song as one of the more emotional moments of his life. He had his childhood mate dueting beside him. And his eldest daughter was on set too, there as an extra…
I ask him whether the subsequent upheaval changed or coloured that happy memory. “The filming happened in the summer. The fuss happened at Christmas, five months later,” he says. “The experience of doing it is wholly separate from the experience of how it’s perceived. And how it’s perceived depends entirely on who is perceiving it. So no.”
Plates are arriving from the kitchen. First zucchini, then seabream, and several bowls of buttered sides. Of course, it brings to mind The Trip, so much of which featured lingering scenes of Brydon enjoying lavish meals. (And in storyline terms it was meant to be the Observer Magazine picking up all the bills.) When Winterbottom first pitched him and Coogan the idea in the late 00s, “We turned it down three times.” A pair of middle-aged men, playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves, bickering over their food? “We said: ‘We can’t. There’s not enough to it.’” But Brydon remembers getting home from the first week of shooting and telling his wife: it might be all right.
I think it has become Brydon’s best work, evolving from a sort of high-budget travelogue into a uniquely paced rumination on ageing and ambition, a study in friendship and rivalry that’s sometimes been unbearably raw. Because the same format is repeated endlessly – Brydon and Coogan veer between good-natured competitiveness (Who has the better mastery of obscure trivia? Who can do the better impersonations?) and reasonably serious personal attacks (Who has had the better career? Who has fashioned for themselves the better life?) – the show has come to have the depth of a novel.
We can safely say, after a decade of episodes, that neither actor comes away looking especially sympathetic. We know we’ve been watching fictionalised reality, I say to Brydon. But, even so, it’s hard for the viewer not to carry away lingering impressions. That both of you use your comic personas as shields. And that you, Rob, are a little more….
“Go on,” says Brydon. “A little more what?”
“You mean with the impersonations and things? That’s Michael Winterbottom! He’s always saying, ‘Do another voice, do another voice.’ I’m fond of funny voices, but I certainly wouldn’t behave like I do in the show, not in a million years.” Brydon frowns. “Look, I don’t under-estimate the effect this programme has had on people, and how they form their opinions about me. But it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think it harms me. I can’t control it. So who cares?”
In his industry, he says, he meets a lot of obsessional people, people who are driven in a way that he can’t fully identify with. “When I hear them talking about their new projects, y’know, that they’re ‘so into’, I want to tell them: ‘Do the work! Put it out there! Wonderful! But I don’t want to hear about it.’ The work should be over there…” Brydon waves a hand towards the far corner of the restaurant. (And with this, once and for all, the Television Personality part of him is dismissed from the table. Twickenham Dad, his smartphone full of pictures of patio furniture, will handle the rest of the interview.) “And over here you’re a chap who lives in a house with a wife and two children, and three more children scattered around in their endeavours, and you’ve got a cat, and a hamster, and that’s what matters… The way I think of my position in the industry, I don’t need to be Steve, or Ricky [Gervais], or Sacha [Baron Cohen], these explosive perkow guys. I’m pretty happy. I know that’s a bit dull. I know that’s a bit ‘meh’, as people say. But I’ve got five kids. My head can’t be everywhere. Does that explain it?”
Yes, I say.
“I love doing this job. I want to keep doing it.” We’re looking around for the waiter. “ But that’s about it. The work is there. We’re here.” So, he wonders, reading the clock on his phone, and glancing around for the waiter – do we have time for pudding?
Grooming by Joe Mills, founder of Joe and Co, Soho, using Mills X Primark, Triumph and Disaster; styling by Tanja Martin; jacket and trousers both by angloitalian.com; roll neck by APC at matchesfashion.com