He has a fine singing voice, an excellent eight-piece band accompanying him on stage, and there are some cracking jokes mixed in with anecdotes from his life.
But what strikes you most about Rob Brydon’s touring show A Night Of Songs & Laughter, apart from the fact it does exactly what it says on the tin, is his unforced rapport with the audience.
But is it just a front? In reality, is his heart hammering in his chest? He’s a bona fide household name these days, as famous for his role as Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey as he is for his voiceovers of Julia Donaldson’s festive adaptations and his TV road trips with Steve Coogan, but holding a stage is a different matter.
‘I’m choosing my words carefully here,’ he says in that familiar Welsh lilt. ‘At the end of a serious song – the Billy Joel lullaby I sang to my newborn daughter, for instance – the lights dim and then black out. There’s a moment when I’m waiting for the audience to clap and yes, for a split second my heart is in my mouth.’
He needn’t worry – when I caught the show in Brighton last month the audience clapped like seals at feeding time. But then the songs are as important as the laughter in this show, which Rob is touring into next year.
What strikes you most about Rob Brydon’s (pictured) touring show A Night Of Songs & Laughter, apart from the fact it does exactly what it says on the tin, is his unforced rapport with the audience
But is it just a front? In reality, is his heart hammering in his chest? Rob’s (pictured) a bona fide household name these days, as famous for his role as Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey as he is for his voiceovers of Julia Donaldson’s festive adaptations and his TV road trips with Steve Coogan, but holding a stage is a different matter
He dips into Carole King’s songbook and gives a sweet-sounding rendition of Elvis’s Always On My Mind. There’s a bit of Tom Waits, but the biggest cheer is reserved for the Tom Jones hit Delilah, which has the audience singing along.
When it comes to interacting with the audience, Rob says he’s learned much from Barry Humphries, both in his guise as Dame Edna and as Sir Les Patterson. ‘The point is to be sharp but never cruel,’ he says.
When two punters scrambled to their seats 20 minutes into the show in Brighton, they were like catnip to Rob. The lady explained that she thought curtain-up was half an hour later. ‘And what do you do for a living?’ Rob asked her companion. ‘I’m a builder,’ came the reply. ‘Oh, that explains why you’re late,’ Rob shot back.
He’s had 20 years now of honing what he calls ‘crowd control’, yet astonishingly Rob, 56, didn’t taste any kind of substantial success until he reached his mid-30s. After six years as a disc jockey on Radio Wales he was sacked. Then the shopping channel where he worked as a presenter went bust. Next came a film show on Sky TV, from which he was let go. He was earning a crust doing voiceovers, but his big break stubbornly failed to materialise.
He needn’t worry – when I caught the show in Brighton last month the audience clapped like seals at feeding time. But then the songs are as important as the laughter in this show, which Rob (pictured) is touring into next year
Yet despite these setbacks, the fact he’s not the tallest man on the planet (he’s 5ft 7in) and the ravages of teenage acne, its legacy still visible today, the thread that ran through his early adulthood was a belief in himself.
‘And to some degree, as I look back, that kind of mystifies me,’ he says. ‘My parents always believed in me. Friends and family too. Yet when I sent my autobiography to my dad, he said he was amazed at what a struggle it had been for me until I got my breakthrough. I read it again myself and realised I possessed a drive, a tenacity, a refusal to give up.’
He had some solid friendships to fall back on too. He first met his Gavin & Stacey co-star Ruth Jones at Porthcawl Comprehensive in his mid-teens.
‘We clicked immediately. We’re best friends to this day. I like to say she’s the sister I never wanted. I take credit for encouraging her not to give up on the business when the breaks weren’t happening for her. What I couldn’t have predicted was that she and James Corden would end up writing the role of Bryn for me in Gavin & Stacey, or the scale of its success. Back then she was just my best schoolfriend. We appeared in productions together like Guys And Dolls.’
Talking of school, is it true he once stole dinner money from fellow pupil Catherine Zeta-Jones?
‘That’s a lovely line, but the truth is I sort of knew the family – her brother was friendly with my brother. One day as I was arriving at school I bumped into her mother, who’d forgotten to give Catherine her dinner money and asked if I’d pass it on to her. So I put it in my pocket and forgot all about it. Later on I was buying fish and chips and unthinkingly I spent it on that.’
When he reached his mid-30s with no breakthrough, even Rob’s self-belief was starting to fray.
‘But they say the darkest hour is just before dawn.’ And along came two hits in the same year.
He’d been introduced to Steve Coogan, who had a production company that commissioned Marion And Geoff, a series of bleak ten-minute TV monologues about a naive taxi driver called Keith Barret who didn’t seem to realise his wife was having an affair.
This was 2000, and that same year Rob teamed up with comedy actress Julia Davis with whom he co-wrote and co-starred in the even blacker Human Remains, which explored the depths of despair triggered by death and divorce. ‘I can’t overstate how those two projects made me feel like I’d come home,’ he says. ‘I’d been knocking on this door for so long and suddenly I’d been invited in.’
The Trip (pictured) in which Rob and Steve Coogan play friends and fellow restaurant critics who laugh and bicker their way around the north of England, Italy, Spain and Greece
But while professional success was at long last his, it wasn’t matched by personal happiness.
He’d married his first wife, Martina, in 1992, and they’d had three children (Katie is now 27, Harry 25 and Amy 23). But by the turn of the century the marriage was unravelling.
‘I’m loath to discuss it because of my grown-up children and my ex-wife with whom I now have a fantastic relationship,’ he says. ‘I’ve spoken about it before and I’ve always regretted it. What I will say is that the two things happened around the same time, so it became a very confusing period. Suddenly I’m winning at the British Comedy Awards and Michael Palin is congratulating me. But inside you feel an utter failure. That’s not a nice mix.’
It’s a cliché, but comedians are often said to have a dark side. ‘Yes, I do have that in me. But I also have this mainstream streak. Growing up, some of my contemporaries only liked the offbeat stuff. I was a fan of Monty Python, sure, but I also admired Bruce Forsyth and Des O’Connor.’
When he first received the script for Gavin & Stacey, he was unsure whether Bryn was a bit too close to Keith Barret in Marion And Geoff. ‘Did I want to play another naive Welshman?’ he says. There were other considerations too.
In 2006 he’d got married for a second time to TV producer Clare Holland, and they now have two children, Tom, 13, and George, ten.
‘We were starting a family and my priorities had changed. In the end I decided to take on the role of Bryn as it wouldn’t involve weeks and weeks away from the family. More than that, I wanted to work with Ruth and James and I was thrilled at the prospect of working with Alison Steadman. And pretty soon I knew it had caught on with what I can only describe as indecent haste.’
Uncle Bryn was one of the show’s standout characters. ‘I don’t think Bryn’s creepy, I think he’s an innocent,’ says Rob. ‘You’re never really told his sexual orientation. I rather like playing with that ambiguity.’
Rob first met James Corden on a film called Cruise Of The Gods in 2002, which also co-starred Steve Coogan and David Walliams.
‘My first impression of James was that he was keen, green, provincial and very talented. I’d immediately struck up a friendship with David, and James was this 24-year-old kid from High Wycombe who used to follow us around – he says so himself – like somebody’s nephew who’s come to stay. I remember him trailing behind us as we walked round Istanbul. I also remember him telling me that what he wanted to do was write. I simply told him to get on and do it. Not the most profound piece of advice, though it worked out pretty well, didn’t it?’
No one though, Rob included, could have foreseen the way in which James subsequently took over the world, with Gavin & Stacey and then The Late Late Show, which he’s hosted since 2015.
‘For The Late Late Show he had the odds stacked against him: an English guy going to Los Angeles to host a chat show in an overcrowded market. So many people were willing him to fail.’
Rob and his family went on holiday to the US in 2019, ending up in LA. ‘James invited us to come and see the show. I remember driving through Hollywood and seeing all these giant billboards for shows I knew but most I didn’t. I was struck by the brutal competition in that town. It made me shiver. I was so glad I’d resisted moving there in an attempt to make my mark. We arrived at CBS and there was a massive billboard of James. You couldn’t fail to be impressed.
When he first received the script for Gavin & Stacey, he was unsure whether Bryn was a bit too close to Keith Barret in Marion And Geoff. Pictured, Rob with his Gavin & Stacey co-stars
‘Years ago I might have wanted a bit of that, but I’m very happy now with where I am. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go down but I don’t need to go up. The key to happiness is not more, better, best. The key to happiness is within you, how you view life, how you are with your family. It’s not to do with how high up the ladder you go. I’m happy touring the theatres with this latest show. It works with my type of comedy. I don’t need the arenas.
‘In America, I hosted the BAFTA Britannia Awards on a couple of occasions, playing to big stars like George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Dustin Hoffman. I was on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show. I did a few episodes of a show for HBO. There was a feeling of ticking those things off a list. But it didn’t make me feel I wanted to be one rung higher. I think now I can trace that back to success coming to me relatively late and coinciding with my first marriage ending. I knew then your home life has to be good if you’re to enjoy things going well in your career. It taught me an important lesson.’
Family always comes first now, which is why he doesn’t like to be away from home for extended periods. But he did make an exception when it came to filming The Trip, four series put together by director Michael Winterbottom in which Rob and Steve Coogan play friends and fellow restaurant critics who laugh and bicker their way around the north of England, Italy, Spain and Greece.
It’s a drama, insists Rob, although it’s clear the two of them are playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves. ‘Yes, essentially it’s us. The nearest thing to it is Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer’s fishing show, which I so envy because there’s no artifice. It’s lovely and it’s gentle.
‘The Trip, by comparison, is a construct. Michael Winterbottom writes the story and Steve and I colour it in. All the prickliness and conflict are given to us. It’s true that occasionally we can get under each other’s skin, touch a nerve, but that’s what gives it its edge.’
It can be misunderstood, though. ‘Absolutely. In The Trip To Italy my character spent the night with a girl on a boat. After it had been shown on TV, somebody at school said to my wife that it must be a difficult time for her. Clearly not everyone sees it as fiction.’
Their characters are carefully delineated. Rob is the softer, warmer one, Steve is spikier. But try to suggest that Coogan might be a tricky customer in real life and Rob is having none of it. ‘I would never say that. Steve is a very special talent, the equal of anyone in comedy the world over. I’ve grown so fond of him, but his is not a friendship like I have with some other people.’
Coogan will soon be seen as the disgraced Jimmy Savile in a TV series about his life. ‘I think he’ll be great,’ says Rob. ‘I know people are asking whether there should be a drama about Jimmy Savile, but Steve will be brilliant.’
THE CRUELTY OF REJECTION
Rob has voiced ads for everything from P&O Cruises to Toilet Duck and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, but he’s had plenty of knockbacks too, some of them downright cruel.
For instance, he once managed to get a meeting with a fancy casting agency in central London in the hope they’d put him forward for a TV chocolate advert.
‘I’d sent them an artfully lit photograph of myself,’ he recalls. ‘But the moment I stepped into this man’s office he took one look at me and said, “Oh dear, oh no. I didn’t realise about your skin. I mean, I can hardly set you up for a chocolate promotion. What would the line be, eat our chocolate and you’ll look like me?” Unbelievable! Funnily enough though, after the initial shock, it just made me redouble my efforts.’
He slips into an effortless impersonation of Coogan, an uncanny ability that includes everyone from Michael Caine and Alan Bennett to Tom Jones and, particularly, Ronnie Corbett. ‘We became friends because he knew that, when I mimicked him, it was done with affection,’ says Rob of the late Ronnie. ‘Ours was a genuine friendship, one that I treasured.’
He also identifies with him. ‘I’m not in his league but his comic timing was exquisite, something I aspire to. If you look at The Two Ronnies, Barker was the more clinical one. You saw the same with Peter Cook and the much warmer Dudley Moore. And there’s a clear comparison with Steve and me.’
These days Rob hangs out with Lee Mack, team captain on quiz show Would I Lie To You?, in which the celebrity panellists must convince their opponents a statement they read out about themselves is true. ‘We’re very friendly with Lee and his family,’ says Rob, who hosts the show. ‘They live quite near us and we see them often. He’s as funny off-screen as he is on Would I Lie To You?.
‘Steve, though, takes no particular pleasure in making you laugh, unless he chooses to. You could be having lunch with the leader of the local council. But Lee loves making people laugh. It’s what makes Would I Lie To You? such fun to do. But then, Lee, the other team captain David Mitchell and I have real respect for each other.’
His next project reunites him with his old pal Ruth Jones in a one-off Comedy Playhouse production for BBC1 called Gaynor & Ray, following a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Scotland as they discover more about each other, not all of it endearing. Things seem to have a habit of coming full circle for Rob, and contentment radiates off him in such palpable waves that there’s no need to ask if he’s happy. ‘I am,’ he says. ‘Because so much of what I want, I have.’
For tour details see robbrydon.live.