Michael Parkinson: Did you have any misgivings when you were asked to do a chat show?
Rob Brydon: I have misgivings on a daily basis about everything! But I have a natural curiosity about people and enjoy asking questions and listening to the answers, so I thought I might be able to pull it off. But then there is the performer side of me… I have Michael McIntyre on this series – who is hilarious and the crowd loved him – but there was something in me shouting, “I’ve got to get a few laughs in here myself!” As a comic I can feel a bit neutered sometimes.
MP: Interviewing is harder than people think – it’s like taking an advanced driving test. Everyone can see a line of traffic but you’re looking far ahead through the traffic and beyond to the next traffic lights. You’ve got to plan the next question, anticipate where it is going to take you and listen and react at the same time.
RB: The scariest thing is when you get a blank – I have had times when we’re sat there chatting away, everything is going fine, but I’m thinking, I’ve no idea where we’re going to go next.
MP: The worst experience I had was when I couldn’t remember John Wayne’s name! John Wayne! On my crib sheet I had written “Duke”. I thought, “You’re not Duke Ellington, that’s for sure…” I couldn’t think who he was!
RB: What did you do?
MP: He clocked it actually, he looked at me and he said [puts on John Wayne voice], “And the guy said to me, ‘Hey, John, John Wayne…’”
RB: You did your talk show through the golden period of television – you had all the greats on. I remember as a kid I had the BBC album release of your interview with Peter Sellers. I learnt it off by heart and could do all his routines on there. What was that like?
MP: He was a strange man. I tried to get him on the show five times before he finally agreed, then on the evening before we were due to record he rang me up to say he couldn’t come on. I was horrified and said, “We’ve got a problem here. It’s the first show in the series. What are we going to do, put an hour of silence on BBC1? Why can’t you do it?” He said, “I can’t walk on as myself.” So I said, “Walk on as someone else, then.” He came on as a German. Very strange man. Talented, yes. But strange.
RB: Who has been your favourite? Interviewing someone who I admired as a kid, there’s a magic to that, so for me it was Barry Humphries…
MP: My childhood heroes were James Cagney and Fred Astaire and I couldn‘t believe it when I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is James Cagney.” But I share your love of The Dame [Barry Humphries’ alter ego Dame Edna Everage]. I had The Dame on 15 times. One of the best shows I ever did, from an unscripted humorous point of view, was one I did with Sharon Osbourne, Dame Judi Dench and her, The Dame. And it was absolutely hilarious because they ignored me and away they went. You become a spectator at the feast, so to speak.
RB: Barry Humphries was a huge influence on me when I was growing up – that mock naivety. When I am on stage I can see so much of Barry’s influence, gently pulling people in and then slapping them down. But often, slapping them down in such a clever, sharp, sly way, they don’t realise the full force of it.
MP: There is a very cruel edge to her, of course, a great deal of venom and spite but it all works beautifully because a lot of it is the essence of comedy. Did you ever do the other alter ego, Sir Les Patterson?
RB: I would love to, not yet.
MP: He came on the show once with a very attractive actress called Jacki Weaver and he walked out with this false dong underneath his trousers. Then as he was talking to Jacki, it started rising and… God almighty… her face was a picture. Of course the cameraman shooting the interview full length had to go in tight but Sir Les kept sliding down the chair to get it into shot! Now, it would be taken off air but then, it played. Interviewing someone who is a comic persona, like Barry, you must buy into it otherwise it doesn’t work. I mean, I fell in love with Miss Piggy! I literally did!
RB: When Barry came on the show we were writing his introduction together while he was half in make-up and half out and that, to me, is such a privileged position to be in when you’ve grown up worshipping someone.
MP: I was talking to him once and he asked, “What advice would you give to me for my chat show?” I said, “You’ll need an ejector seat.” And of course then he got one [for The Dame Edna Experience]. He nicked my idea!
RB: I have never yet had what I would call an unpleasant experience with a guest.
MP: I could make several recommendations. You’ve not interviewed Meg Ryan yet, have you? That wasn’t an interview; it was a collision. She didn’t want to be there, and after a while I didn’t want her to be there, either. So a mutual loathing developed. I should have got rid of her earlier. That’s the only thing I think when I watch it back.
RB: Do you pre-record? It’s the modern scourge, isn’t it?
MP: I think it is, actually.
RB: Ronnie Corbett came on Would I Lie to You? and we record a lot for that show – it’s a half-hour show but we are there for a couple of hours – and he said, “They really take a lot from you, don’t they? In the old days the money was there for preparation and for rehearsal.” Something like The Two Ronnies – and we’re not comparing like for like – but they would rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and then perform it. Now you just throw a lot of mud at the wall and in the edit hope you can make a show out of it.
MP: And I think the fatigue shows on the faces of people sometimes – the beard growth, too! They look like they need a shave by the end!
RB: The other factor with the edit is the tone and pace of the show, because it can be quite hard. Our show is only half an hour. I would like it to be longer, 40 to 45 minutes, because it’s hard to find a place for longer, slower stories. How long do you think you need to get a good interview?
MP: We did about 60 one-man shows, which I enjoyed immensely, but on average my interviews were around 20 minutes; that was the shortest we did with people – unless there was a Meg Ryan-style collision. It gives the guest time to relax.
RB: You need that time for the conversation to flow and give guests the chance to get beyond just telling you about their new film.
MP: I think that’s a bit of a red herring, actually, and I lose patience with people who ask me about that if the price of mentioning the book or film meant that you could get James Stewart on, or Clint Eastwood, it was a small price to pay. The trick is to get rid of it in the intro. I remember Bette Davis doing an interview and after five minutes she turned to camera and said, “I’ve got to tell you folks, I’m not here because I’m a friend of his – I don’t particularly know who the hell he is – I’m here to promote my book.” The poor interviewer was left floundering because whoever produced the show didn’t have the common sense to say she’s here because she’s written an autobiography. That’s all you have to do, and then she’s happy.
RB: Do you have a go-to question that usually generates a good answer?
MP: Not as such. The question I used to ask, which told my producer to start the car – because there was only one left was, “Did anyone ever take a swing at you in a bar?”
RB: What’s the best answer you’ve ever had to that question?
MP: Robert Mitchum. He had smoked about a pound of dope before he came on and was high from beginning to end. I asked him the question and he said, “I was in a bar in New York having some lunch and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Mitchum, sign my autograph book.’ I said, ‘I’ll sign it when I’ve eaten my meal.’ As I put my fork to my mouth, the guy shoved the book between my fork and my mouth and said, ‘Sign it, you son of a bitch’.” I said, “What did you do then?” He said, “I took my fork and pushed it up through his nose and pulled it out the roof of his head.” I said, “You’re pulling my leg.” And he said, “Yup”. And that was it. That was the end of the show. He said to me as he was coming off, “How was I, kid?” He called me kid all the way through. I said, “It was awful. Awful”. And he said, “Well, let’s go back and do it again,” but I said no. He was coming down by then.
RB: Is there anyone you haven’t interviewed yet that you would like to?
MP: There’s only one interview to be done and that’s with the Queen. What an interview that would be! Just imagine if it did! Where do you start? Where do you end? She’s seen everybody. Nobody knows what she thinks. I’m not suggesting she should go on a talk show, but there should be some kind of record of her thoughts on everything she has been through and witnessed.
RB: That’s a wonderful idea – an interview that isn’t broadcast until years later.
MP: She’s an extraordinary woman – all the people she has met and the opinions she must have… She has seen most clearly of all what has happened to her country over the years.
RB: In the absence of the Queen, would you be happy with Cheryl Cole?
MP: [Laughs loudly] I think that’s a good place to end, don’t you?
The Rob Brydon Show is on BBC2 tonight at 10:00pm. This week’s guests are comedian Michael McIntyre, Blur’s Alex James and singer Amy McDonald.