Quark: So firstly, who or what have been, or are, your main influences on your work – what influenced your style?
RB: I think – I always say Barry Humphries – I’ve loved his work for as long as I can remember – the way he is on stage. So I’d say him. Basically, when I’m on stage, I can always see, sometimes far too clearly, the influences I’ve had, you know, whether it’s Frankie Howerd or Woody Allen, or – all sorts of people, I think you absorb it all, and hopefully make it your own.
Quark: Definitely. So which of your roles have you relished the most – which have you got the most enjoyment out of doing?
RB: Not sure – I enjoyed playing Bryn in Gavin and Stacey, because I knew it was a great role, I knew it was beautifully written and I knew it sort of fitted me like a glove, and when we came back after the first series it was a hit, and that was…that doesn’t happen often – most things most actors do are not hits – hits are hard to come by. So I certainly relished playing that, because I knew I could do it well, and I knew that the material was of a certain quality. So I’d say that…what else…in terms of relish, I’d say probably Bryn.
Quark: Gavin and Stacey really came through BBC Three, so how do you feel about it being turned into a purely online channel – how do you think new comedy is going to fare without it?
RB:Well I think it’s a shame, but I also think that the BBC has to make savings, so it’s not a straightforward situation. I think that nowadays it’s kind of easier than ever to get your stuff seen. When I was starting out, obviously there was no internet, you couldn’t put stuff on the internet. If you wanted to edit something – as I did when I got my break – I did a video of 4 different characters and I shot it and edited it, and to get it edited I had to take huge tapes to an edit suite and pay somebody to edit it, then go to a different dub and have it dubbed. Nowadays I can do all that on my Mac, and I could produce as high if not higher a quality than you could then. So it’s never been easier to…and all this stuff is relatively inexpensive…it’s never been easier, but I suppose the harder thing now is to reach large audiences. There’s a lot of people making stuff that’s very niche and very cult-y, and that’s great, but at some point you have to pay the bills, and so it’s harder – and it can be hard to turn this work into something that brings money in.
Quark: So if someone wanted to start out in comedy nowadays, how would you recommend they get started?
RB: Well I’d say, if they were writing and performing, I’d say write stuff that’s true to you – I know it’s an old saying, but write what you know, it’s very true. Try to resist the temptation that most of us go through, which is to be like someone else, to be like heroes. Take all that in, but you have to come out then as something individual. So I’d say be brave enough to speak in your own voice, which can be scary; it’s safer to ape somebody else, but try and speak in your own voice, because the only ones that really get valued and held up are the ones that have their own voice. So that would be my advice.
Quark: You’ve worked in quite a variety of comedic formats: scripted, like Gavin and Stacey, a bit more ad lib like The Trip and panel shows like Would I Lie To You? and The Guess List. Which provides the greatest challenge for you?
RB: They’re different challenges. The thing with something like Gavin and Stacey, or with any scripted comedy, is that you get the script, and if it’s well-written, like it was with that, you just think, ok, how am I going to do this, how am I going to get the most out of this. But it’s a difficult balance, because on the one hand you’re thinking how you’re going to get the most out of this, but at the same time a big key to success in acting is relaxation, being relaxed and going with the flow. So it can be difficult sometimes – how much do you want to mine something, how much do you want to keep mining this scene, to try and get as much out of a line or a scene as you can, and how much do you want to just let things happen? I sometimes find that an interesting equation. Things like panel shows – I think with Would I Lie To You, my role on that is pretty easy; I just chip in now and again, and it’s mostly Lee [Mack] and David [Mitchell] that do most of the heavy lifting on that show. On The Guess List – that’s challenging, because there’s a lot of pre-written gags, so trying to cram those into your head is a challenge in itself, to get those in, and then the challenge is to make them appear off the cuff. But then a lot of them, perhaps not a majority, but a large amount of the stuff that stays in the edit and that really flies is just stuff I make up, that’s something that I do, you know, that I improvise, and that is…it’s funny, people think of shows like The Guess List as fluffy Saturday-night entertainment, and indeed they are, but they actually take quite a lot of work, because you’re memorising gags and set-ups, you’re also trying to think on your feet and you’re having to remember the game, the format of the game, which was difficult because it was the first series and you’re not familiar with it, so there were often times when I thought, “Well what happens next?”. So that brings its own challenges. Something like The Trip is…again, it’s very interesting, because – I’m sure it’s not unique, but it’s quite unusual, the way that we work, in that we are ostensibly playing ourselves, and sometimes it’s very close to home and other times you’re just inventing stuff and you’re saying things you wouldn’t say as yourself, and sometimes you’re saying things you completely would say, and there’s some script, there’s some story, but you’re inventing all the time. So that’s something else again. So in terms of what’s the most demanding…well in just talking to you now, I’d say that the scripted stuff is the least demanding, because you’re given help – as long as the material’s good, you’re starting off with something.
Quark: So talking about The Trip, how was it to work with Steve Coogan, and how much of Alan Partridge do you think came out in his persona – you spent quite a long time with him, both when you toured northern England and in Italy, so how much of Alan came out in Steve?
RB: Well there’s lots of Alan in Steve, but there is in anybody that does characters and becomes very known for their characters. They often mine or take stuff from themselves, and then they exaggerate it and twist it, and sometimes it’s not a great exaggeration, so yeah, I can see lots of Alan’s qualities in Steve, but they’re not the same person. But you can see…when I did Marion and Geoff – Keith Abbott – there’s a lot of me in him, but I’m not him. You take parts of yourself that serve…an example I can give you would be when Keith says in I think the first episode of Marion and Geoff, when Keith talks about how he can always see the other side of the argument – he says, “If Michael Owen scores a goal” – Michael Owen was a footballer that was popular at the time – he says, “If Michael Owen scores a goal, I will always spare a thought for the goalkeeper”. That’s something that’s very me, I’m very much seeing both sides of the argument, which can be rather annoying at times, make you seem rather indecisive and committing neither one way nor the other. So I think that’s a good example of taking something in yourself, seeing the comic or dramatic potential of it and exploring it, you know, using it. I think you take this – when you’re writing, so you see, Steve is one of the writers on Partridge, and I wrote Keith with another person, so you…it’s a joint effort, but you very much…any of these guys…Ricky Gervais with Brent, Peter Kay with the guy in Phoenix Nights Brian Potter, there are lots of…Sacha Baron Cohen with his characters – you see aspects of his personality. Sometimes it can be the opposite of your quality – I think that’s interesting with Partridge, you know, that Alan loves the Daily Mail, for example, so what Steve’s done there is completely reversed his own feelings, but it’s that strength of feeling that he’s using, and just turning it around. So I think a lot of it starts from the actors and the writer, but it isn’t necessarily always a reflection of that writer, because it’ll sometimes be twisted and perverted and turned round until it fits the purpose.
Quark: Your range of impressions is really quite incredible, for example, on The Trip you’ve done Michael Caine, Hugh Grant and Tom Jones to name but a few. How do you train yourself to be able to do such a variety of accents, intonations?
RB: I don’t think that I do that wide a variety really – proper, professional impressionists can do zillions of them. With me it’s just something I can do, it’s just a knack, like being able to sing I suppose. All I’ll say about them is that pretty much everyone I’ve ever impersonated I’ve liked – so with me it’s an extension of that old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I think all the people I do I have a fondness for. I think it’s to do with having a musical ear, I think you’ll hear a voice, and sometimes you’ll think very quickly, “Oh yes, I can do that voice”. It’s hearing the key to the voice – it can be a vowel sound, it can be…it’s often a vowel, actually – the rhythm of the voice is very important, so that you could do…I think I did it in an interview on something, somebody commented on it – I think I was telling the story of how they’ve dubbed The Trip into other languages, and in the Spanish trailer which is on YouTube – it’s worth looking up – Steve is dubbed with a very manly voice [impersonates], and I was wondering what I was going to sound like, and when I eventually came in, my voice was [impersonates high-pitched voice], which I thought was very funny. Somebody said, “Well what do they do with impressions?” and I honestly can’t remember, but I think they do them in that language, so I started to do in this interview – I think it was Steve Wright – a Spanish Michael Caine – so the important thing then is [impersonates Michael Caine:] just the rhythms of the voice, the way he talks, we all know the rhythms, it’s very distinct [end]. So in theory, you could probably put a different accent on it, as long as you have those rhythms and the very distinctive way of speaking, someone with a very distinctive speech pattern which he has…so I just hear the voice and think, oh yeh, there’s something I like about it. I do Gore Vidal in this new series. I’ve always liked Gore Vidal, [impersonates Gore Vidal] I’ve very much liked his voice, and, you know, wanted to learn it, and to do it, and so I did, and it’s something I learned with ease [end], and, you know, it’s part of his personality. But you know, I say in The Trip, he spoke as though he discovered the secret of life and was bored waiting for everyone else to catch up, so…I’ve always liked Gore Vidal, I find him a very interesting communicator, dead now of course, so that’s an example of just hearing someone. When you’re younger, for me, if you like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as I did, I used to impersonate them, or Leonard Rossiter or Ronnie Corbett, or Peter Sellers, just people that you like, and if you are an actor or a writer or a creative person, it just seems natural. I used to memorise whole sketches by Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Quark: Very impressive. So talking about Would I Lie To You again, what’s your percentage success?
RB: Ah well I don’t guess – I know them – sorry to disappoint you. I rehearse with production team in the afternoon, because obviously we have to know what’s coming up, but the guests genuinely don’t, and David and Lee don’t – that’s very important. So it’s actually quite hard for me, so I’ll be sitting there, thinking and wondering to myself, “Well I know this is true…”, and when you know it’s true, it’s hard to know if it’s convincing or not, when you already know the truth. It’s quite tricky. I can’t help you on that one, I’m afraid.
Quark: So with the elections coming up – Europeans next month and the general in 2015, do you think that the format of Would I Lie To You? could kind of be adapted so we could get the truth out of politicians and save reading about the scandals later – it could be entertaining.
RB: Oh no, certainly wouldn’t want that, no. I would be very resistant to any bright spark at the BBC suggesting a version with politicians. I think I’d be busy that day.
Quark: If you were the Prime Minister, and you had to draw up the cabinet, but comprised solely of comedians or people you’ve worked with, who would you put at which ministry?
RB: Oh no, right, let me think…er…oh no, these questions are hard…these humourous questions…oh I don’t know…who would I have in which one…do you know, I’m so useless, I can always hear the disappointment at the other end of the phone when people ask me this kind of question…well let me think now…so ok…oh I have no idea…I don’t know…ask me something else, I have no idea…I won’t be that funny off the top of my head.
Quark: So if you could relive any of your comedic moments, or be remembered for one thing, what would it be, one stand-out moment?
RB: Well those are 2 different questions…if I could be remembered for one thing, er…if I could choose, well if I could choose, I’d like to be remembered as somebody who did lots of different things. I suspect it’ll be, “Uncle Bryn has died”, but that’s just the way…there’s nothing you can do about that. But if I could choose, it would be, “He did a lot of things quite well”.
The Trip To Italy is currently showing on BBC2 at 22:00 on Friday evenings and The Guess List on Saturday at 21:20 on BBC1. Mr Brydon’s autobiography, A Small Man In A Book, can be purchased here on Amazon, and his website is robbrydon.com.