Rob Brydon on his relationship with Steve Coogan

He’s had a steady stream of offers from Hollywood, but Rob Brydon won’t sacrifice family life to make a splash across the pond. Which is why the comedian, gameshow host and Gavin & Stacey star was able to dive right in to the daftest Britflick of the year

‘I’m at my best when I’m naked and a little bit wet,’ says Rob Brydon, joking about how he spends much of his new movie in a swimming pool, bare but for a pair of trunks. ‘There’s a vulnerability about me in that state, but also a strange defiance. Alluring!’

The playful Welsh comedian and actor best known for classics such as Gavin & Stacey and The Trip, and for hosting the panel show Would I Lie To You?, is a leading man at last, in a funny but also very touching British movie called Swimming With Men.

‘I’m at my best when I’m naked and a little bit wet,’ says Rob Brydon, joking about how he spends much of his new movie in a swimming pool

Set inside the secret world of male synchronised swimming – and based on an unlikely true story – it involves Brydon showing a lot of flesh, often pimpled by goosebumps. Was that a challenge to the confidence of a 53-year-old man? ‘I wasn’t bothered in the slightest,’ he says, throwing back his head and trilling out a little song. ‘“I am what I am! And what I am needs no excuses!” Nobody’s expecting Sylvester Stallone, are they?’

Maybe not, but even Sly would shiver and feel self-conscious after spending all day in the water at Basildon Sporting Village, which was where I first met Brydon a year ago. He was distant and focused, hurrying to pull off his swimming cap and put on the same kind of blue sleeveless hoodie worn by the rest of his teammates, including big Jim Carter (from Downton), Daniel Mays (Mrs Biggs), Rupert Graves (Sherlock) and others.

But now Brydon is relaxed and fully dressed in a black polo shirt and sandy chinos, sipping green tea in a London hotel and pleased to be told that he actually looks surprisingly buff up there on the big screen in the almost-altogether. ‘When you get to 50, you either get your act together or you don’t. I am in the former camp. I want to feel better. I want to feel good and live long, because I’ve got five kids. I want to be around to see them all grow up. I genuinely do.’

Brydon has given up the Hollywood dream for the sake of his children. ‘I’ve chosen not to go there when I could have done,’ he says

Brydon has given up the Hollywood dream for the sake of his children. ‘I’ve chosen not to go there when I could have done,’ he says

It’s clear that family is the most important thing in Brydon’s life. He’s famously evasive in interviews, often hiding behind shaggy-dog stories and funny voices – but not today. There’s only one awkward moment, when I notice his suspiciously luxurious hair and ask if he’s had a transplant. ‘There’s undoubtedly more hair than there was, but how? I just don’t understand it!’ he says, affecting surprise. ‘Will you help me to find out?’

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. But other than that, Brydon seems set on being himself today. So we’re going to get to the bottom of his relationship with sparring partner Steve Coogan, to see if it’s as brittle as it looks on screen in The Trip. And I want to know if he found inspiration for Eric in Swimming With Men – an accountant going through a midlife crisis, separated from his wife and son – by looking back to his own darkest days.

‘Yes,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps subconsciously, but my situation was not the situation you see in the film. What I’m able to do is tap in to a well of emotional memory of not seeing as much of your children as you would like to. So I can go there.’ He flinches. This is obviously a painful subject for him. ‘That’s 18 years ago, when we went through it,’ he says.

The boy from near Port Talbot was working as a DJ for BBC Radio Wales when he met his first wife, Martina Fitchie, in a Cardiff pub – but by 2000 they were separated, divorce was looming and he spent a lot of time missing his children, Katie, Harry and Amy. They are now aged 23, 21 and 19 respectively, and Brydon is friends again with Martina, isn’t he? ‘Yeah.’

Brydon married the television producer Claire Holland in 2006 and they have two boys, Tom and George, aged ten and seven. Both halves of his family live close to each other and Brydon says the desire to stay near all his children is the reason he is still in this country making charming but comparatively small-budget movies, rather than taking up offers from Hollywood. ‘I honestly don’t want to go there. I like being around my kids.’

Hollywood wants him, make no mistake about that. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm wrote to him suggesting they work together; HBO asked him to name his project; Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr and even Justin Timberlake are among the stars who have expressed their love of the three semi-improvised road comedies he has made with Steve Coogan on The Trip: first to the restaurants of northern England, then Italy and, most recently, Spain.

The pair play exaggerated versions of themselves – Coogan the ambitious, fretful would-be movie star and Brydon the laid-back family man – bickering and competing to see who has the most Baftas and who can do the best impressions, from Sean Connery and Roger Moore to Tom Jones. There’s a twist in The Trip – it’s Brydon and not Coogan who gets the offer of a part in a Michael Mann movie.

But in real life, Brydon has given up the Hollywood dream for the sake of his children. ‘I’ve chosen not to go there when I could have done,’ he says. ‘Why am I going to be happier in some American television show, even if it’s a big hit? That’s not where happiness lies.’

He’d rather hang out in west London, booking every school holiday off that he can. And so Hollywood has come to him of late, with the role of Inspector Lestrade in the forthcoming Holmes And Watson, alongside Will Ferrell as the great detective. ‘We filmed it at Shepperton, which is around the corner from where I live! I couldn’t do the full-on actor’s life. “Darling, I’m going to Bulgaria for four months.” That holds no appeal.’

Swimming With Men, from left: Thomas Turgoose, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Rob Brydon, Daniel Mays, Rupert Graves

Swimming With Men, from left: Thomas Turgoose, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Rob Brydon, Daniel Mays, Rupert Graves

Brydon hits the gym in a scene from the film. Brydon is pleased to be told that he actually looks surprisingly buff

Brydon hits the gym in a scene from the film. Brydon is pleased to be told that he actually looks surprisingly buff

What if it was a chance to co-star with his all-time acting hero, Al Pacino? ‘That might be hard to resist. But the reality is, it would be super-exciting the first day, when you meet Al. It would be pretty exciting for the first week. Then it’s a job again and you discover – lo and behold – that Al is a human being just like everybody else.’

Spoken like a true cynic – until you discover he was actually too nervous or starstruck to meet his hero, the one time it was possible. ‘I had the chance when we were doing a movie called The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Jessica Chastain [one of the stars] knows Al Pacino very well and she said: “He’s in town, do you want to come and have a drink?”’

This is a man Brydon has impersonated many times on chat shows, stand-up tours and The Trip, making a catchphrase out of saying: ‘Whatayagot?’ But when it came to meeting face to face, he chickened out in favour of a parents’ evening.

‘Thank God, there was some school event going on and I couldn’t go,’ he says. ‘I was pleased, because what have I got to gain there? I already have a relationship with Al Pacino, on my terms!’

Brydon knows he has different priorities to other performers. ‘If you don’t have children then for an actor or a comedian, the career is the child. I see my contemporaries showering as much attention and love and nurture on their career as they would a child. Whereas for me it’s work. I go and do it, I enjoy it, but I don’t feel defined by it.’

So if Brydon is actually quite a bit like his character in The Trip, how does he really get on with Coogan? ‘We text, we might even email, but now he’s a guy who’s still driven. His daughter has grown up. He still wants to prove that he’s the top. I don’t.’

What’s the relationship like in real life? He looks thoughtful and pauses for so long I wonder if they’ve fallen out. ‘I would say it’s now the best it’s ever been.’ Why’s that? ‘Well, because I haven’t seen him for a year.’ He laughs, pleased with his own comic timing. ‘But seriously, he said it himself: he no longer drinks, he no longer takes drugs, he is a nicer person as a result. We’re older now. Over the years, we’ve had moments.’

What kind of moments? ‘The Trip is the sort of programme where you’re pushing each other’s buttons. There’ll be times when we know the other is joking and times when we go, “Does he really think that?” That can sometimes touch a nerve. But we had a gentleman’s agreement at the start that we could do that.’

Part of the fun is guessing which bits of the needle you see between them on screen are real, but it seems those are becoming rarer.

Rob Brydon with Steve Coogan in the first series of The Trip. Brydon says he thinks of Coogan like a brother, but they rarely socialise in real life

Rob Brydon with Steve Coogan in the first series of The Trip. Brydon says he thinks of Coogan like a brother, but they rarely socialise in real life

‘The last Trip was the most equable,’ says Brydon. ‘There’s often times when I think both of us felt, “Ah, right, we’ve got to be prickly with each other again. Here we go.”’

If they are having to act the tension, does that imply there won’t be another series?

‘Oh no! I think there will be. We can turn it on. It’s my job.’ But they haven’t got as far as planning where they might go.

So are they friends or not? ‘I don’t see Steve socially, like I do with other friends within the business. David Walliams is a very close friend of mine. I would phone up Lee Mack [a team captain on Would I Lie To You?] and we hang out together. I wouldn’t do that with Steve. He is more like a brother. We get thrown together at family events and I can honestly say I love him, because he has been part of my life for a long time now.”

Coogan’s company gave Brydon his first break back in 2000 by making his solo comedy Marion & Geoff, in which he played a naive taxi driver going through a divorce (at much the same time as he was, in real life). What would he have done if stardom had not come calling? ‘I’d have been all right. I had a great career as a voiceover artist, I was making a lot of money.’ Suddenly he flashes his pearly white teeth in a cheesy smile. ‘Have you considered a cruise? It’s never far from my mind!’ He makes advertisements for P&O Cruises these days, but back then it was Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and Toilet Duck. ‘I had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to say, “Look at what I can do.” I don’t have that any more.’

When did it go? ‘I think it may have been after we did Gavin & Stacey.’ The Bafta-winning series about a boy from Essex and a girl from Barry Island was written by James Corden and Ruth Jones, with whom Brydon had been at Porthcawl Comprehensive. He’s made it clear he would be up for a reunion episode if they can get everybody together: ‘If James and Ruth want to do it then I think we’d all do it.’ But Corden is busy being a star in LA – and Brydon is now the romantic lead in a rather good movie.

Swimming With Men is based on the true story of Dylan Williams, a Welshman who went to live in his wife’s native Sweden. Looking for friends, he fell in a with a group of former punks and musicians who had formed a club called Stockholm Art Swim Gents. Their idea – a very Swedish one at that – was to be completely serious about doing something they thought was silly. So they settled on synchronised swimming, found an experienced female coach and got a shock at how very hard it was. ‘Those women defy physics. What they do is stunning.’

The Swedish team was the subject of an acclaimed documentary called Men Who Swim, made by Dylan Williams himself. The movie version is very different, not least because it is set in England, but there’s still a lot of swimming. ‘I had lessons to get a good stroke going, because I’ve always been confident in the water, but with no technique. We did two weeks of training for three or four hours a day, learning the routines. At the end of that, our bodies had transformed.’

There was another side-effect too. ‘The best sleep of my adult life. Incredible. So pure. Head hit the pillow, bang. Gone.’ Eric and his mates go off to represent their country at the unofficial All-Male World Championships, just as the Swedish team did in 2010.

The pretend British team stole an idea from the Swedes, with four swimmers riding on the backs of the others like surfers on the waves. The most difficult move was The Caterpillar, which involved swimming upside down underwater in a circular human chain.

‘The first time we tried it, it was terrifying,’ said Brydon. ‘You’re at the bottom for such a long time, being held down under water by a pair of feet around your neck. Your feet are around the neck of the next man. The thing is knowing when to take the breath as you go round. Then you arch your back and go under, but you’re down at the bottom again thinking, “Come on! When are we going back up?”’

Is that the scariest thing he has ever done for a film? ‘No! We had seven weeks of training for the Huntsman movie. Nick Frost and me were playing dwarves, so we learned to ride horses. The first lesson, we went around the paddock for a bit then the lovely girl who was teaching me said, “Let’s go out in this field.” The horse bolted – with me on his back! She said – and I am bigging myself up here – that it was a miracle I had held on. She was convinced she had killed me on the first day.’ He shakes his head in mock dismay. ‘And the worst thing is, there was no need for lessons at all in the end. There’s not a scene in that film without somebody’s hand just out of shot, holding the reins.’

Still, synchronised swimming involves a lot of intimate contact with other men. Was he OK with that? ‘Yeah, I’m fine. My darling, I’m an actor. I enjoyed it very much. There is something touching about seeing men being vulnerable, physically and emotionally. We’re in our trunks. All our characters are at a sticky patch in their lives. You see us reaching out, holding and touching each other in the water.

‘It’s the classic underdog story. But there is an emotional kick from seeing these guys who are all rather adrift, having to reach out to each other. I wonder if it’s a sign of the times? In 2018, a lot of men do feel rather adrift. They don’t know what is expected of them.’

Does he ever feel adrift? ‘Oh no. I have done in the past, but not now,’ he says with a grin. ‘What have I got to complain about? It’s all worked out OK, you know?’

Indeed it has. I feel like I’ve met the real Rob Brydon today and he seems pretty happy with his lot. ‘And as for the film, at the very least, nobody can say, “Oh no, not another middle-aged synchronised swimming movie! I mean, how many of those do we have to put up with a year?”’ 

‘Swimming With Men’ is out on July 6