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New Zealand-bound comedian Rob Brydon on his slow rise to stardom

Rob Brydon. Illustration/Weef

After starring in the film Swimming with Men, Rob Brydon is drying off for a stand-up tour of New Zealand. He recounts his slow route to stardom, via Steve Coogan and Flight of the Conchords.

It’s early evening in London when Rob Brydon greets the Listener down the line in that bemused baritone of his. He’s spent the day, he says, tweaking the live comedy set that he’s bringing to New Zealand.

It’s hard to imagine what the genial Welshman worries might get lost in translation from the routine he’s performed in the UK in the past year or so. He says there will be contemplations of ageing (he’s 53) and fatherhood (five kids from two marriages, his youngest are 10 and seven). He sings and plays guitar. And yes, there will be impressions.

Brydon’s way with other people’s voices has long been quite a thing. Every British chat-show appearance requires him to do one. The three A Trip to movies he’s made with Steve Coogan have created some of their biggest laughs when the pair, who are playing versions of themselves swanning about the eateries of Europe, try to one-up each other with their impersonations of famous folk.

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On the previous day, he says, he had lunch with Coogan, their first meeting about a fourth in the series. After increasingly eventful forays to the north of England, Italy and Spain, the next takes them to Greece. Those movies, originally filmed for the small screen, have helped Brydon’s profile outside the UK, where he’s been a television fixture since the early 2000s. His career finally began blooming after he spent much of the previous decade, after leaving drama school for a radio job, doing voice-over work and a stint as a shopping-channel presenter.

Like rather a lot of things in his slow-fused career, Brydon came to stand-up comedy late. It didn’t really take off for him until he went out as Keith Barret, his pitiful character from the 2000 series Marion and Geoff. It was delivered as a series of video diaries from Keith, a decent but clueless taxi driver coping stoically with his divorce from Marion and her new life, with his kids, with Geoff.

That same year, he co-wrote and appeared in multiple guises in the unnerving sketch show Human Remains, a “macabre comedy masterpiece” (said the Guardian) with Julia Davis, “the queen of dark comedy” (said the Times).

Rob Brydon, front centre, in Swimming with Men. Photo/Supplied

Those shows – “they did well on a kind of cult level”, says Brydon – were a springboard to a decade-plus of hosting panel shows, guest appearances and his scene-stealing turn as Uncle Bryn in the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey.

All of which led to the publication of an autobiography, Small Man in a Book, in 2011. It starts out as a memoir of a largely idyllic and precocious childhood after being born Robert Brydon Jones in Port Talbot, Wales. It ends with his first flush of television success in the early 2000s.

Still, given what’s he’s achieved in the 20 years since, a bit soon, wasn’t it?

“I know, it’s funny, isn’t it?” he chuckles. It began with Brydon writing about his childhood on a summer holiday. “I wrote some stuff down in a little more flowery language than the book I eventually wrote.” But the results were promising enough to pick up publisher interest for a full book.

He enjoyed the personal detective work, and created a timeline of his life from his birth right up to his time as a British showbiz late bloomer. “I have been a late bloomer in so many ways. I didn’t drink till my thirties. I didn’t drink coffee till my forties. I can’t really explain it; I think it’s one of the reasons why I enjoy what I do so much – it took a long time for me to get success and I don’t take it for granted. I really appreciate it because of that.”

Brydon. Photo/Getty Images
These days, he’s something of a Welsh national treasure, one who was made an MBE in 2013 for services to broadcasting, comedy and charity. As such, he knows when he arrives in New Zealand for his first time he faces a challenge should talk turn to a certain mutual national game.

“Well, I like rugby but I am no great authority on it. I really enjoy it but I always feel out of my depth as soon as people start talking about rules. I have to excuse myself from the conversation.”

The memoir may soon require a sequel, if only for Brydon to cover his pivotal role in the rise of Kiwi duo Flight of the Conchords. He was the narrator of their 2005 BBC radio series, which acted as a prototype of the HBO TV show. Each episode (sample title: “Neil Finn Saves the Day!”) started with his line: “Hello, I’m Rob Brydon …”

Brydon first encountered Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie in a tiny club at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he was performing as Keith Barret. “And of course I was blown away by them. So I was so pleased then to have this rather vague association with them.”

Brydon has arguably done some of his best work in double acts – with Davis in Human Remains and Coogan in their movies.

The connection to the Artist Occasionally Known as Alan Partridge goes back further than the films. Coogan’s production company was behind Marion and Geoff, Human Remains and Gavin & Stacey, among other Brydon shows.

Brydon and Julia Davis in Human Remains. Photo/Supplied

Brydon says it’s been an odd occasional partnership, especially as he started out as a Coogan fan who thought “that’s what I want to do”. They had similar paths.

“Way back when I was doing voice-overs and I couldn’t break into comedy … he had started in voice-overs, so I saw a real parallel. Like me, he failed to get into RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was exactly my experience of seeing these other kids that were auditioning who seemed, with their long hair and their long coats, like they were from another world. So I went from being this great fan of his to working with him and we’ve now become a bit of an item in the professional sense. I don’t know how often that happens in our business.”

From the outside, making those seemingly freewheeling and improvised Trip movies might appear a bit of a lark.

“In many ways it’s a doddle; it’s a lovely way to work. We film it chronologically, which is very strange for narrative stuff – you normally shoot out of sequence – so you feel as if you are having the experience that you have on the screen because we go from place to place.

“Having said that, of course, it is all mostly improvised and that can sometimes be challenging. It’s not a reality show. Because if we were just a reality show where Steve and I were literally just being ourselves and you were just following us around, well, that would be easy. This is not that. There is a construct to this and, although we’re often being ourselves, we will equally go just as far in the other direction and say things I would never in a million years say and have conversations you would never have or put ourselves in situations we never would. It’s a very odd thing.”

With James Corden in Gavin & Stacey. Photo/Supplied

In the films, Brydon plays the cheery optimist, a man happy with his achievements in British showbiz to Coogan, the bitter cynic wondering why Hollywood hasn’t embraced his abundant talents. You might wonder – how do they actually get on?

“It’s funny, we don’t see a great deal of each other in between projects. We will send the odd text or email but [after filming and promotion] we tend to, you know, sort of go our separate ways and …”

Keep it fresh?

“Well, that’s a good point. That is a part of it. So we do keep it fresh until we have stuff to stay.”

Brydon is Coogan-free in his latest film, Swimming with Men, which arrives on local screens ahead of the stand-up tour.

In it he plays Eric, an accountant undergoing a midlife and marriage crisis who finds solace in an all-male synchronised-swimming team. It’s The Full Monty by way of Esther Williams, kind of. It’s based on a Swedish documentary, Men Who Swim, which has also spawned a French feature, Le Grand Bain/Sink or Swim.

It may sport an ensemble of guys in bathing caps and nose clips but Swimming with Men is Brydon’s first lead role in a movie where he’s not playing Rob Brydon, or the bit-part comic relief.

“I was well aware of it, yes, and I was aware that my character has an arc. In movies. I’ve played more the sort of parts where you come in and you do your thing, you have your thing and you’re often responding to what’s going on.

With Steve Coogan in The Trip to Spain. Photo/Supplied

“I was very conscious of trying to give Eric an arc and I tried as much as I could to do as little as possible – I didn’t try to make him twinkle and charm the audience. I wanted to show this guy who was at a real low ebb.”

The movie has had mixed reviews at home. Some were perhaps hoping for more of Brydon’s trademark wit, less pondering how the crisis in modern masculinity might be helped if there was more choreographed male bonding in the deep end.

“It’s been quite sort of divided in how people reacted to the character. It’s almost right down the middle. Some had great sympathy for him, this poor guy, but many had no sympathy for him at all, which kind of surprised me because I had sympathy for him. I thought he was ultimately a good man trying to do the right thing but he just got lost.”

If Brydon had a midlife crisis, he says he got over it relatively early, in his early- to mid-thirties, back when he was wondering if he would forever be stuck talking into studio microphones in those voices of his. But along came the television breakthroughs and “suddenly I wasn’t pushing any more. Suddenly doors were opening and that’s how it’s been since then.”

Otherwise, these days, he may well have been stuck on Radio Wales, where he got his first paying gig, as possibly the Welsh answer to that veteran provincial broadcaster Alan Partridge?

“Ha ha ha ha. Well, I couldn’t stay there; I mean, they got rid of me. They didn’t renew the contract. If they hadn’t done that then I might well still be there and there probably would be some unfortunate parallels with Alan Partridge.

“Sometimes in life these things come along and at the time you think, ‘Oh, no’, but with hindsight sometimes you need that push.”

Rob Brydon’s I Am Standing Up tour plays ASB Theatre, Auckland, April 2; Christchurch Town Hall, April 3; Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, April 4. Swimming with Men is in cinemas from February 28.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.